The microscope you need a microscope to see


UW postdoctoral fellow Neil Sarkar has developed the world’s first “microscopic microscope,” and is being recognized for it.

Sarkar was recently awarded the Douglas R. Colton Medal for Research Excellence for his work on single-chip atomic force microscopes (AFMs).

According to Sarkar, atomic force microscopes are among the highest resolution microscopes available today. Using a sharp tip that interacts with a tiny sample, the instrument can build an image with nanometer-scale resolution.

“Traditionally, these instruments have been large, bulky, expensive, and slow,” Sarkar said. “We have integrated all of the mechanical actuators and electrical sensors that are required for an AFM to obtain an image onto a single chip, which is smaller, cheaper, and faster than conventional AFMs.  We call this device a ‘single-chip AFM,’ and it’s really a microscopic microscope. You need a microscope to see it.

Sarkar’s interest in nanotechnology led him to his discovery. He calls AFMs a “workhorse instrument” in the nanotechnology field.

“As an electrical engineer, the manufacture of integrated circuits has been a fundamental part of my courses at UW and work terms abroad,” he said. “Combining integrated circuit technology with sensors and actuators is what led to the first single-chip AFM.”

Sarkar also credits the university with assisting him on his discovery. He said his time as a PhD student provided him with the opportunity to learn about all the technology that goes into single-chip AFMs, and has given him the ability to manufacture the chips, with access to some of the world’s most advanced CMOS foundries.

“I think it’s safe to say that if I wasn’t at UW, this technology would not be a real product, in part because of the effect that Policy 73 has had on the culture on campus,” Sarkar said, referring to the school’s intellectual property rights policy.

Sarkar developed the technology while working with the university’s Centre for Integrated RF Engineering (CIRFE), which provided him the tools he needed to design and test the device, said the UW Daily Bulletin. Through a startup company Sarkar co-founded called Integrated Circuit Scanning Probe Instruments (ICSPI). Sarkar is now trying to commercialize the “world’s-first” single-chip AFM.

And in this day and age, discovering and developing the world’s first anything is a rare opportunity. Sarkar called the experience “exciting.”

“We live at a time where things are being aggressively miniaturized in many disciplines.  In that sense, the miniaturization of AFMs is yet another example of technology getting smaller, just like the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ movement and the trends in the integrated circuit industry,” he said. “I think it was just a matter of time before people scaled AFMs down in size and cost, and it’s exciting to be at the forefront of this trend with my colleagues at the CIRFE lab and at ICSPI.”

One particular application for the microscopic microscope has yet to be determined but Sarkar said there are several exciting possibilities, including 3-D printing.

“[Single-chip AFMs] can not only see things at the nanometer scale, but they can make them too.  Students that want to make tiny features on a sample can use our chip as a ‘nano 3D printer,’ which could provide insight and experience into the nature of things at this size scale,” Sarkar said.

The Douglas R. Colton Medal for Research Excellence is awarded once a year by CMC Microsystems to a researcher in the microsystems area. The award includes a medal and a prize of $4,500.

“CMC is a unique and critical organization in Canada that provides researchers across the country with access to the tools and manufacturing capabilities that are needed to bring ideas to fruition in our engineering endeavors,” Sarkar said. “It was an honour to be selected as a recipient of this award, especially because the CMC is a community of my peers.”