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March 13, 2005

Watching paint dry — with an atomic-force microscope


"Not as boring as you thought," was the headline for The Economist's January 8 story about how things down at the nanoscale suddenly take on a much-altered appearance and importance.

Infinitesima (great name), a small firm based in Bristol, England, has invented what it calls the VideoAFM (atomic-force microscope).

This machine is able to actually make movies of paint drying, molecule by molecule.

Why should we care?

Because not only can their device record, it can also do synthesis at the same scale.

Which means that it can perhaps be used as a molecular pen, if you will, to enable a form of nanolithography, creating devices whose components have nanometer (billionths of a meter) dimensions.

The paper describing the details is awaiting publication in Applied Physics Letters.

Meanwhile, here's The Economist's story.

    Not as Boring as You Thought

    Watching paint dry may lead to some exciting new technologies

    Believe it or not, there are a small but significant number of people in this world who watch paint dry for a living.

    And watching paint dry, if you look closely enough, is fascinating.


    Plenty of researchers are mesmerised by exactly how the paint comes off the brush, how the polymers within it interact in order to adhere to a surface, and what happens when the water, or other solvent, evaporates.

    This sort of thing reveals how the chemistry really works, and thus how to make better paint.

    The excitement of watching a molecule of water lift off from the surface of a wall is, however, hampered by the fact that the only available photographs of the action are stills.

    It is like trying to work out how to play football from a series of time-lapse frames.

    But help is at hand. Andrew Humphris, chief technology officer of Infinitesima, a small firm based in Bristol, in Britain, has come up with a system that allows you to take a movie of drying paint.

    The existing method of photographing molecules is more "feely" than "movie."

    The camera is a device called an atomic-force microscope (AFM).

    This works by running the tip of a probe over the molecules in question, rather as the stylus of an old-fashioned record player runs across the surface of an LP.

    The bumps and grooves picked up by an AFM can be translated into a picture, but it takes between 30 seconds and a minute to build up an image.

    Scan much faster than that and the stylus starts to resonate, blurring the result.

    But Infinitesima's VideoAFM can, according to Dr Humphris, go 1,000 times faster than a standard AFM.

    That is fast enough to allow videos to be taken of, for example, molecules evaporating—information of great value to the paint-making industry, to which Dr Humphris hopes to sell many of his machines.

    He is coy about exactly how they work, since the paper describing the details is awaiting publication in Applied Physics Letters.

    But the process for keeping the stylus under control seems to involve some high-powered computing and signal processing.

    Infinitesima is testing the VideoAFM by looking at polymers as they crystallise.

    The movies resemble frost spreading across a chilly window.

    But the VideoAFM can do more than mere analysis.

    It can do synthesis as well.

    Just as a carelessly applied stylus can alter the surface of a record, so an AFM can alter the surface it is scanning at the molecular level, in effect writing on that surface.

    Such writing, if it were fast enough, could be used as a form of lithography for making devices whose components had dimensions of nanometres (billionths of a metre).

    Nanotechnology, as engineering at this scale is known, is all the rage, and nanotech firms could end up using the VideoAFM's descendants in their factories.

    In the meantime, live paint-drying action could soon be coming to a television near you.

March 13, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Yeah its nice article.This new video-rate atomic-force microscope (AFM) developed at Infinitesima (Oxford, England) can display images of molecular processes as they happen. The system allows imaging rates up to 1000 times faster than that of conventional AFMs, delivering full video at frame rates of 25 frames per second.

Posted by: alloy analyzer | Dec 9, 2008 4:20:46 AM

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