Editorial Feature

Can AFM be used for Imaging in Liquids?

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) is a powerful and adaptable imaging technique. AFM allows researchers to investigate and manipulate materials at the atomic and molecular levels, providing invaluable insights into their properties and behavior. While AFM is commonly used for imaging in air and vacuum environments, the question arises: Can AFM be used for imaging in liquids? In this article, we will delve into the challenges and possibilities of using AFM in liquid environments.

AFM, atomic force microscopy, AFM in liquids, liquid AFM

Image Credit: sanjaya viraj bandara/Shutterstock.com

Understanding AFM: A Brief Overview

Before we explore the feasibility of AFM in liquids, it is essential to comprehend the fundamentals of this ground-breaking imaging technique. AFM works by employing a sharp probe, typically made of silicon or other materials, to scan a sample's surface with exceptional precision. The probe interacts with the atoms on the surface, and the resulting forces are measured, generating a high-resolution image of the sample's topography.

AFM Imaging in Liquid

The use of atomic force microscopy (AFM) in liquid environments, in which the surface being studied and the scanning probe are both submerged in liquid, is known as AFM in liquids.

Tapping Mode AFM is one of the promising approaches for imaging in liquids. In this mode, the AFM tip oscillates, lightly tapping the sample surface. The intermittent contact reduces the interaction with the liquid, minimizing disturbances caused by capillary forces. Tapping Mode AFM has shown remarkable success in imaging biological samples submerged in liquids.

Dynamic Fluid AFM is another technique gaining traction. By analyzing the vibrations of the AFM cantilever, researchers can extract information about the sample's properties in liquid environments. This method offers unique insights into dynamic processes, such as protein folding and molecular interactions.

Challenges of AFM in Liquids

While AFM is exceptionally effective in dry conditions, imaging in liquids presents several obstacles that need to be overcome.

Maintaining a stable liquid environment is crucial for successful AFM imaging. Vibrations, temperature changes, and evaporation can significantly impact the quality of the obtained images. Researchers must ensure optimal stability and take precautions to mitigate any disturbances that may compromise the imaging process.

In liquid environments, the behavior of the AFM probe can be influenced by hydrodynamic forces. These forces can affect the accuracy and resolution of the measurements, leading to distorted or blurred images. Understanding and accounting for hydrodynamic effects is essential for obtaining reliable results.

Preparing samples for AFM imaging in liquids can be challenging as well. Many materials may not be compatible with the liquid environment or may exhibit changes in their properties when submerged. Researchers must carefully select suitable samples and employ appropriate preparation techniques to ensure accurate and meaningful results.

The choice of liquid is critical in AFM imaging. Different liquids can have varying effects on both the sample and the cantilever. Researchers must consider the compatibility of the liquid with the sample, as well as its impact on the overall imaging process. Additionally, the choice of liquid can affect imaging speed, resolution, and stability.

Solutions and Advances

Despite the challenges mentioned above, significant progress has been made in utilizing AFM for imaging in liquids. Researchers and manufacturers have developed various strategies and techniques to enhance the performance and reliability of AFM in liquid environments.

Specialized liquid cells have been designed to encapsulate the sample and provide a controlled environment, minimizing disturbances and maintaining stability during imaging.

A recent research paper published in Sensors has demonstrated a novel cantilever design to mitigate hydrodynamic forces, improving the accuracy and resolution of AFM measurements in liquids.

Implementing precise temperature control, vibration isolation, and humidity regulation can help maintain stability and minimize external disturbances. A breakthrough study published in Analytical Methods has focused on identifying liquids that are compatible with both the sample and the cantilever, enabling more reliable imaging in various liquid environments.

The Future of AFM in Liquids

The integration of AFM in liquid environments is a captivating frontier with vast potential. As researchers refine existing techniques and develop new methodologies, the possibilities for AFM in liquids are bound to expand.

One of the most exciting applications of AFM in liquids is the study of biological processes at the nanoscale. Observing living cells and biomolecules in their natural liquid environment can provide invaluable data for drug development, medical research, and bioengineering.

AFM's ability to image materials with atomic precision is particularly relevant in the study of nanostructured materials. Understanding their behavior in liquid environments is crucial for advancing fields like nano-electronics, energy storage, and catalysis.


In conclusion, while AFM faces challenges when used for imaging in liquids, it also presents remarkable opportunities for exploring the nano-world in a new light. Researchers continue to push the boundaries of this technique, making significant strides in understanding complex processes in liquid environments.

So, can AFM be used for imaging in liquids? The answer is a resounding yes; with advancements in technology and innovative approaches, AFM opens a window into the fascinating world of nanoscale phenomena occurring in the liquids that surround us. As we unlock the secrets of this realm, new avenues for scientific discovery and technological breakthroughs lie ahead.

More from AZoOptics: How to Use AFM to Analyze Surface Metrology

References and Further Reading 

Yamada, H., & Kobayashi, K. (2019). SS2-2 Frontiers of AFM imaging method–high-resolution AFM in liquids and subsurface imaging–. Microscopy68(Supplement_1), i28-i28. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmicro/dfz067

Leitner, M., Seferovic, H., Stainer, S., Buchroithner, B., Schwalb, C. H., Deutschinger, A., & Ebner, A. (2020). Atomic force microscopy imaging in turbid liquids: a promising tool in nanomedicine. Sensors, 20(13), 3715. https://doi.org/10.3390/s20133715

Yan, J., Sun, B., Xie, C., Liu, Y., Song, Z., Xu, H., & Wang, Z. (2021). The influence of different liquid environments on the atomic force microscopy detection of living bEnd. 3 cells. Analytical Methods, 13(21), 2384-2390. https://doi.org/10.1039/D1AY00567

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ibtisam Abbasi

Written by

Ibtisam Abbasi

Ibtisam graduated from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. During his academic career, he has worked on several research projects and has successfully managed several co-curricular events such as the International World Space Week and the International Conference on Aerospace Engineering. Having won an English prose competition during his undergraduate degree, Ibtisam has always been keenly interested in research, writing, and editing. Soon after his graduation, he joined AzoNetwork as a freelancer to sharpen his skills. Ibtisam loves to travel, especially visiting the countryside. He has always been a sports fan and loves to watch tennis, soccer, and cricket. Born in Pakistan, Ibtisam one day hopes to travel all over the world.


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