Using special e-beams electronic microscopes produce 2D images by measuring objects and analyzing their peculiarities. A probe microscope uses a needle to scan the objects. Probe microscopes are used for analyzing 3D objects like a nanorelief of a surface, for instance, measuring depth and width of nanochannels. Both types of microscopes have their advantages and disadvantages. The main feature of electronic ones is that they analyze surfaces faster than probe microscopes. However, probe microscopy allows working at atmospheric pressure and detecting those peculiarities of objects that are impossible to be analyzed by electronic microscopes, for instance, cellular membrane’s rigidity. However, their disadvantage is that they probe a small part of the surface – it means that the process of scanning of one image by a probe microscope takes much more time than the same for an electronic one. To speed up this process and extend the functionality of equipment, one needs to combine the functions of electronic and probe microscopes. For this purpose ITMO researchers developed a multimode analyzer of scanning probe microscope for a scanning electronic microscope. In simple words, it is an extra detail equipped with a scanning needle that one can fix on an electronic microscope.

Alexander Golubok, Ivan Mukhin, Mikhail Mukhin

This upgraded equipment can analyze nanostructures and nanosystems as well as manipulate physical objects at the nano-level.  For example, using the needle (probe) one can move nanoparticles around the surface and monitor the process using an e-beam at the same time. It means that the development by researchers form NT-Spb is appropriate for solving tasks in material science, photonics, biology, solid-state physics and other fields.

The main feature of the module is that it is possible to slightly modify this to upgrade both electronic and optical microscopes. The specialists have conducted several experiments – different microscopes by three companies were equipped with the modules. This strategy gives the developers an opportunity to enter new markets as there are thousands of microscopes. To focus on one microscope model means losing potential clients.

“It is not beneficial for large companies to use this strategy as they focus on batch production. However, it is appropriate for us to modify the module in accordance with client’s needs and also conduct  research for this purpose. Large companies don’t work on custom-made projects – on the contrary, we can collaborate with research institutes, enterprises or companies that need to upgrade their microscopes,” says Alexander Golubok, head of NT-Spb and ITMO’s Professor.

Large companies producing microscopes offer their clients ready-to-use solutions. Then if necessary the clients provide extra activities to integrate new equipment into their labs. NT-Spb works on this instead of their clients.

“There are some analogues of probe microscope’s modules, but all of them are produced overseas and cost several times more than ours. Our solution is of the same quality and now there are no similar ones in Russia. Furthermore, we collaborate with the vendor company OPTEK – we equip their microscopes with the modules. It proves the quality of our solutions as we partner with such a large company,” adds Ivan Mukhin, ITMO’s researcher and CEO of NT-Spb.

NanoTutor Project 

The authors of the multimode analyzer of scanning probe microscope won a grant by the Russian Science Foundation for conducting a research using this equipment. The researchers also plan to use the module for educational purposes.

The project also received financial support by the Commercialization Program initiated by the Innovation Support Fund. To join the program, NT-Spb had to present a prototype of the module and real applications of the device – now it is already used at interactive classes on physics [Read here about the scanning probe microscope NanoTutor]. Furthermore, NT-Spb collaborates with the research and production company Avangard, which produces various types of probe microscopes.

The Commercialization programs aims to assist in promotion of ready-to-use projects at the market. According to Ivan Mukhin, the proposal document presented by the company looked more like a business plan as it included various economic indicators.

According to the rules of the program, the company has to earn the same amount of money as they received. It also cannot spend the funding on salaries – the only activity it can invest in is promotion. Now when the company has already carried out all the obligations, it has to pay taxes in accordance with the amount of funding. As of now, NT-Spb supplies the modules to several Russian organizations including St Petersburg National Research Academic University.