This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project will explore new science and technology to enable infrared (IR) spectroscopy and imaging with sub-20 nm spatial resolution. Conventional IR spectroscopy is a benchmark tool in research and industry, providing rich chemically specific information. Due to optical diffraction limits, the resolution of conventional IR spectroscopy is limited to a few microns, preventing its broad application to nanoscale research and development. This project aims to dramatically surpass the current resolution limits using an innovative, patent-pending probe based technique to measure IR absorption below the diffraction limit. Leveraging prior investments in nanoscale IR spectroscopy, the team will establish the feasibility of improving spatial resolution and sensitivity by a factor of ten over previous work (and a factor of 250 versus commercial IR microscopy). To achieve these goals, the project team will develop high-sensitivity nanoscale probes, ultrasensitive detection electronics and sophisticated data analysis algorithms to extend IR spectroscopy to the sub-20 nm length scale. The resolution and sensitivity breakthroughs will enable new solutions to a broad range of scientifically and commercially critical problems as outlined below.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project will be dramatically improved resolution of infrared (IR) spectroscopy, which is the most widely used analytical technique for chemical characterization and identification, and which constitutes a $1 billion industry. Infrared absorption spectra give critical information about molecular structure and have led to broad adoption of IR spectroscopy in diverse fields. The increasing global emphasis on nanoscience and nanotechnology has led to a growing need to design, characterize, and manufacture complex materials with physical and chemical structures on the sub-100 nm length scale. The resolution limits of conventional IR spectroscopy have left business and research communities lacking critical characterization capabilities for making nanoscale chemical measurements. Filling this critical gap in the characterization toolset will substantially accelerate the rate of technological and commercial advances in fields which depend on chemical analysis and imaging at the nanoscale. Research has indicated that the broadest adoption of nanoscale IR will occur when the resolution reaches the sub-20 nm range. Availability of nanoscale IR spectroscopy will have dramatic impacts on materials development and basic research. Critical applications include characterization of polymer blends, multilayer thin films, photovoltaics and solar cells, organic LEDs, pharmaceuticals and life sciences, and biofuels research.