Preventing Nanoscale Wear of Atomic Force Microscopy Tips Through the Use of Monolithic Ultrananocrystalline Diamond Probes



Nanoscale wear is a key limitation of conventional atomic force microscopy (AFM) probes that results in decreased resolution, accuracy, and reproducibility in probe-based imaging, writing, measurement, and nanomanufacturing applications. Diamond is potentially an ideal probe material due to its unrivaled hardness and stiffness, its low friction and wear, and its chemical inertness. However, the manufacture of monolithic diamond probes with consistently shaped small-radius tips has not been previously achieved. The first wafer-level fabrication of monolithic ultrananocrystalline diamond (UNCD) probes with <5-nm grain sizes and smooth tips with radii of 30–40 nm is reported, which are obtained through a combination of microfabrication and hot-filament chemical vapor deposition. Their nanoscale wear resistance under contact-mode scanning conditions is compared with that of conventional silicon nitride (SiNx) probes of similar geometry at two different relative humidity levels (≈15 and ≈70%). While SiNx probes exhibit significant wear that further increases with humidity, UNCD probes show little measurable wear. The only significant degradation of the UNCD probes observed in one case is associated with removal of the initial seed layer of the UNCD film. The results show the potential of a new material for AFM probes and demonstrate a systematic approach to studying wear at the nanoscale.