nGauge product photo

ICSPI creates world’s smallest, and most affordable atomic force microscope

Velocity Garage company ICSPI has revolutionized the way we think about microscopes. Before they developed nGauge, traditional Atomic Force Microscopes (AFMs) cost anywhere between $100,000 to $500,000. AFMs are the workhorse of nanotechnology, and typically every university will have a few of these niche instruments on campus. However, because they have a limited lifespan and are expensive, many universities charge a fee to anyone who wants to use one. As you can imagine, the barriers to use have been very high until ICSPI. Their nGauge AFM lowers the barrier by costing 10-100 times less than existing AFMs on the market.

Not only is the nGauge more affordable, but it is smaller and provides astounding image quality and can provide a 3D reconstruction of the tiniest objects. ICSPI’s nGauge can look at surfaces starting from 1 nanometer. To put this into perspective, a single strand of human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide, and a single bacterium is about 1,000 nanometers long. A nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter. Small is an understatement when imagining what can be seen with their AFM. Industries that currently use the nGauge include machining, dentistry, gemmology, nanotechnology, quality control, and the medical implantation industry.

These images were taken with an ICSPI Single-Chip Atomic Force Microscope in tapping mode in air with no vibration isolation.These images were taken with a nGauge in tapped mode in the air with no vibration isolation.

“People who use really advanced and expensive AFMs are pretty shocked that we’re hitting the same resolution specs at such a small fraction of the cost and it’s so easy to use,” said Dr. Neil Sarkar, President of ICSPI

President of ICSPI, Neil Sarkar completed his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and in 2007 he began his work on the nGauge as his Ph.D. research. He wanted to take all of the components of an AFM and integrate them into a single chip. The nGauge is one million times smaller than traditional AFMs. All of the essential components of an AFM, including the fine XYZ movement, and the nanoscale sensing have been incorporated into a single 1 mm x 1 mm chip. This means that the microscope is portable and not sensitive to vibrations. Normal AFMs have to be placed on a vibration isolation table, but because the nGauge is so small, it is not affected and does not require specialized equipment. Normal AFMs need a laser alignment system to tell where you are moving, but the nGauge moves in X, Y, and Z using micro-electrical-mechanical systems, eliminating the need for these laser alignment systems that take a while to set up. These micro-electrical-mechanical systems are controlled through electricity and control movement in a 3D axis. With the nGauge, you can take quality images in five minutes – long before a traditional AFM has even been laser aligned.

“What we want to do is shatter the notion that if you want to do nanotech, you have to have a PhD and access to a million-dollar facility,” said Neil. “ICSPI’s mission is to commoditize the highest resolution microscopes available today, so that nanometer-scale science and technology is available to everyone.”

ICSPI has also extended the lifespan of the microscope with researchers able to use a single one-millimeter chip for over a year. With normal AFMs, the sensors and scanners wear out over time and cannot be easily replaced. With the nGauge, every time you put in a new chip you are getting new scanners and sensors – this also means you always get the latest technology. These chips cost only $250 to replace and are sold separately. Four chips are included with a brand new microscope at the time of purchase. ICSPI recently sold a microscope to a researcher in Guatemala through a UN education grant for less economically developed countries. With any other AFM, this would have been unattainable due to cost. The nGauge can now be found in teaching labs, research labs, and high schools across the world, including Japan, China, South Korea, Guatemala, and 6 other countries. 

In the future, ICSPI would like to see the nGauge in labs all across the world. They are exploring new industry and teaching applications and also added features. ICSPI would like to incorporate features like other modes of scanning probe microscopy, being able to look at magnetic, thermal, and other material properties.