This $4,000 Open Source High-Speed Atomic Force Microscope Is a Nanoscale Imaging Marvel

Built from less than $4,000 in parts, this low-cost open source atomic force microscope has already proven capable of detecting dermatitis.

A team of scientists from the National Taiwan University, the Technical Universities of Denmark and Munich, and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt has built an open source design for a nanoscale imaging high-speed atomic force microscope (HS-AFM) — buildable for under $4,000.

"For the first time," says co-author Edwin Hwu of the team's work, "you can build a High-Speed AFM and get 46x46µm, 512x512 pixels image in 9.3 seconds. [This] low-cost HS-AFM can measure the nanotexture of human skin corneocytes. Costs you less than a Mac Pro!"

Building on an earlier design, Hwu and colleague's controller design offers a doubling of imaging area and a hundredfold boost to its scanning velocity — providing the performance required for practical use. To prove it, the team used the tool to assess the severity of atopic dermatitis (AD) in human subjects — measuring the nanotexture of corneocytes, or "horny cells," the size of which provides an indication of the regenerative capacity of the skin.

An atomic force microscope works through contact: An ultra-fine needle is run across the surface of the object to be imaged, physically feeling its dimensions and reporting the result back to the host system for processing into a visible image. Typically, such devices are extremely expensive — but the version built by Hwu and colleagues comes in at $3,936 in parts. Better yet, it is released under an open-hardware license for all to replicate.

The team's controller uses a National Instruments myRIO-1900 FPGA development board connected to the Arduino-based Strømlingo DIY AFM, a simplified atomic force microscope design, and generates fast-axis and slow-axis scanning — upgrading the Strømlingo to high-speed operation.

"We believe that in addition to working on simplified AFMs," the team writes in conclusion, "[this] open source controller can upgrade old AFMs to have high-speed DC mode measurements, thereby further expanding the HS-AFM research community."

The team's work is published under open-access terms in the journal HardwareX, with design files and source code available under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license on OSF Home.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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