AFM goes to Hollywood and beyond

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So the real measure of a technology’s success is if it is featured in a movie or TV show, right?  Well, probably not a measure of actual success (I doubt the mainstream public will be lining up to buy AFM’s or Walmart will start carrying them), but it certainly speaks to some measure of recognition and “wow” factor in the general public eye.   So it was particularly exciting when my children, who are big fans of the Arrowverse TV series in the US heard of an AFM being used in one of the Arrow episodes and 1) knew what it was and 2) were very excited to hear it in one of their own TV shows. What a career validating moment for their mother!!

AFM made its TV debut in 2008 on the investigative drama show CSI: Miami.  In that show, an MFP-3D (Asylum Research) was featured in an episode entitled “Rock and a Hard Place” (Season 6, episode 19) The AFM was used to image a damaged pharmaceutical pill because according to forensic detective Ryan Wolfe (played by Jonathan Togo), the AFM could image “under” the damage to reveal what the imprinted logo on the tablet was (thereby leading them to the pill manufacturer and to solve the murder case.)  At least the scientist did correctly explain what an AFM was: “it feels the surface on the nanoscale using a mechanical probe”.  The fact that the logo was, in fact, macroscopic and could be viewed with the eye – well that is just details, details.  And how is the AFM imaging the topography underneath the damage?  There are certainly some sophisticated AFM methods that can get at some subsurface information like contact resonance, but it is not a straightforward application of AFM.  Unless the AFM tip is used to scratch away the damage and then image?  Maybe I’m overthinking this…At least this TV episode also featured a well-done 3-D animation of an AFM probe scanning across the surface.

An image that was used on the episode of "CSI:Miami

So 10 years later, on the TV show Arrow, AFM has a cameo appearance in the episode entitled “The Thanatos Guild” (Season 6, Episode 16) that aired in 2018.  In this episode, a “magical” map has been discovered and was only readable after one of the character’s blood spilled on it.  Apparently, the map was printed in bacteria and the person’s enzymes from blood would bind to the bacteria revealing the map (stay with me here)….The resident scientist self-proclaimed technical geek, Felicity Smoak (played by Emily Bett Rickards), immediately figured out how this map was written:  by nanolithography, of course!  Accordingly to Felicity, writing this map required “bleeding edge science, it requires an atomic force microscope.”  So Felicity definitely got that part right –AFM’s are excellent tools for nanolithography (i.e. write features on the nanoscale.) The only problem was that this map’s features, similar to the CSI Miami episode, were in fact on the macroscale and easily readable with the visible eye.   It seems like all the writers for these TV episodes could benefit from a lesson on length scales.

Screenshot of the map used in the episode of The Arrow

So making an appearance on TV is certainly exciting.   But in a more scientifically sound yet probably more exciting venue, AFM has made an appearance…on Mars.  An AFM manufactured by a Swiss consortium (IMT Neuchatel, IFP Basel, and Nanosurf) was incorporated into the NASA Phoenix Mars Lander, which was launched in August, 2007 and landed on Mars May of 2008.  The AFM was part of the Phoenix “Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer” that also included an optical microscope and sample delivery wheel. The AFM successfully imaged actual Martian dust particles only a few months after landing on Mars; the particles measured 1um in diameter, which agreed with predictions of particle size from other studies. 

Martian dust particles as images by AFM on the Phoenix Mars lander

I think it is fair to say that AFM is making a splash well outside our earthly labs….

Dalia Yablon, Ph.D.

SurfaceChar LLC 



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