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Keywords:

  • AFM;
  • Atomic force microscopy;
  • biomineralization;
  • diatom;
  • elasticity;
  • hardness;
  • nanoindentation;
  • Navicula pelliculosa

The mechanisms behind natural nanofabrication of highly structured silicas are increasingly being investigated. We have explored the use of a standard Nanoscope III Multimode atomic force microscope (AFM) to study the silica shell of diatoms. The delicate structures of the shell surface of the diatom Navicula pelliculosa (Bréb.) Hilse were imaged and the shell's micromechanical properties were measured semi-quantitatively with a resolution down to approximately 10 nm. The technique to measure elasticity and hardness with the AFM was demonstrated to be useable even on these hard glass-like surfaces. Different experimental configurations and evaluation methods were tested. They gave a consistent result of the shell micromechanical properties. The first results showed that the diatom shell's overall hardness and elasticity was similar to that of known silicas. However, regions with different mechanical properties were distinguished. The elastic modulus varied from 7 to 20 GPa, from 20 to 100 GPa and from 30 to hundreds of GPa depending on the location. In general, the hardness measurements showed similar spatial differences. The hardness values ranged from 1 to 12 GPa but one specific part of the shell was even harder. Hence, certain localized regions of the shell were significantly harder or more elastic. These regions coincide with known characteristic features and mechanisms appearing at the different stages of the shell's growth. These results show that this method serves as a complementary tool in the study of silica biomineralization, and can detect eventual crystalline phases.