Quantifying Molecular Stiffness and Interaction with Lateral Force Microscopy

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Science  07 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6175, pp. 1120-1122
DOI: 10.1126/science.1249502

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A Soft Molecular Spring

In noncontact atomic force microscopy, extremely high resolution has been achieved by attaching a terminal CO molecule to the metal scanning probe tip. This CO molecule can undergo torsional vibrations, and a full understanding of the imaging mechanism requires a measure of this spring constant. Weymouth et al. (p. 1120, published online 6 February; see the Perspective by Salmeron) used lateral force microscopy, in which the tip vibrates laterally across the surface, to determine this torsional constant. The stiffness of the isolated CO molecules on the tip was much less than that for CO molecules adsorbed on planar surfaces.


The spatial resolution of atomic force microscopy (AFM) can be drastically increased by terminating the tip with a single carbon monoxide (CO) molecule. However, the CO molecule is not stiff, and lateral forces, such as those around the sides of molecules, distort images. This issue begs a larger question of how AFM can probe structures that are laterally weak. Lateral force microscopy (LFM) can probe lateral stiffnesses that are not accessible to normal-force AFM, resulting in higher spatial resolution. With LFM, we determined the torsional spring constant of a CO-terminated tip molecule to be 0.24 newtons per meter. This value is less than that of a surface molecule and an example of a system whose stiffness is a product not only of bonding partners but also local environment.

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