2. Scanner Artifacts


2.1 Piezo Creep

Piezo creep occurs because when you apply a set voltage to the piezo(scanner), and then try to maintain it, in order to move to a certain location, the piezo tends to continue to move in the same direction for a certain period of time. Essentially, this means that when you start a new scan, you will get some stretching or compression of features at the beginnning of the image, and then the image will start to appear more normal over time.
The effect will be particularly pronounced if you move to a new place within your scan range.
See the example below.

AFM image showing piezo or scanner creep artifact

In the example above, the image is distorted at the top due to scanner creep.

How to avoid it
The simplest thing to do is just wait until it disappears, and start scanning again. Even better, set the AFM to scan one line continuously. Select the first line of the area you wish to scan, and wait until the image stabilises (i.e. that line is always the same), then start scanning the image properly.
AFMs with linearised scanner do not suffer from this effect. many modern AFMs have such scan linearising features. More details about his can be found in the book "Atomic Force Microscopy".
Note that distorted features all over your image, not just at the start, are due to something else, maybe sample drift.

2. Scanner Artifacts

2.2 Edge Overshoot

This artifact occurs when the scanner moves further than it should vertically, leading to a very "sharp" edge on the features in the image.
You can spot it in the topography profile as "bumps" on the edges of tall features. It's due to hysteresis in piezoelectric scanners.

How to avoid it.
If you scan more slowly, you will avoid this artifact. However, it is usually only noticable on samples that are very flat, with square features.

3. Other Artifacts

3.3 Laser Interference

This effect is seen as broad "stripes" in your AFM images, running along the slow scan direction. They are caused by constructive interference between the reflection of the laser from the tip, and the reflection from the sample. See the example below.

Example of laser interference patterns

In the example above, the near-vertical stripe-like oscillations are cause by laser interference.
How to avoid it.

Sometimes this effect is really hard to avoid. It is more noticeable on flat samples, and large (>3 micron) images, and is worse with small, less reflective cantilevers, and it is particularly pronounced on more reflective samples. It's easy to recognise because usually the stripes will be spaced at double the wavelength of the laser used (i.e. usually around 1.3 microns). The best way to avoid this artifact is to re-align the laser, to ensure as little as possible spreads over the edge of the cantilever. Note: Many newer AFMs use a low-coherence laser, and so are much less prone to this problem.

2. Other Artifacts

Sample Drift

Sample drift means that your sample is moving as you try to scan it in the AFM.
This artifact occurs in any type of SPM, or indeed any microscopy, but is much more serious in high resolution techniques like SEM, TEM and AFM than optical microscopy. It's known as "drift", because, in general, we see the sample moving slowly, in one direction (or expanding or contracting). You can generally recognize this as a "distortion" of the image, which changes when you change the slow scan direction. beginning of the image, and then the image will start to appear more normal over time. The effect will be particularly pronounced if you move to a new place within your scan range.
See the example below.

Two AFM images showing effects of sample drift

In the example above, the two images of the same cluster of bacteria are not identical because the sample is moving while it is being scanned. It is typical of this effect that you will get different images when scanning in different directions.

How to avoid it.
The best thing to do, is to stop your sample from moving. The way to do this depends on why it's moving.

Is it thermal expansion?
-then keep the temperature constant, turn off external sources of heat(lights), and wait for it to stop moving.
It's usually worth trying to fix the sample down better. The other way to overcome (or at least to reduce) the distortion is to scan quickly.

3. Other Artifacts

3.3 Flying Tip

This artifact shows that the AFM is not properly tracking the surface.
In the example below the effect is obvious, but this is not always the case.
Sometimes it is clearer if you look at some of the other signals, like amplitude or phase or deflection images. In the images shown below, note how all the features have a "tail" to their left.

AFM image showing poor feedback

In the example above, the image of nanoparticles shows "tails" on each particle, to the left. The image was recorded scanning from right to left.Typically, the left to right image would show the tails on the right side of each feature. It is typical of this effect that you will get different images in the two directions.

How to avoid it.
If you see this, your feedback parameters are incorrect.
It is usually easy to fix. You generally should increase integral gain, then the proportional gain, you may need to change the setpoint too, or even scan more slowly. See the answer about adjusting AFM feedback parameters here, in in my book.