Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is a technique for analyzing the surface of a rigid material all the way down to the level of the atom . AFM uses a mechanical probe to magnify surface features up to 100,000,000 times, and it produces 3-D images of the surface.
The technique is derived from a related technology, called scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). The difference is that AFM does not require the sample to conduct electricity, whereas STM does. AFM also works in regular room temperatures, while STM requires special temperature and other conditions.
AFM is being used to understand materials problems in many areas, including data storage, telecommunications, biomedicine, chemistry, and aerospace. In data storage, it is helping researchers to "force" a disk to have a higher capacity. Today's magnetic storage devices typically have a capacity limit of between 20 and 50 gigabits (billions of bits) per square inch of storage medium. Researchers are looking into AFM to help raise read and write densities to between 40 gigabits and 300 gigabits per square inch. No one has yet commercialized AFM technology for this purpose, but IBM and others are actively pursuing it.