Electrochemical AFM: Nanoscale Probing of Electrochemical Processes

What is Electrochemical AFM?

Electrochemical atomic force microscopy (EC-AFM) is a powerful analytical technique that combines the high-resolution imaging capabilities of atomic force microscopy (AFM) with electrochemical measurements. It enables the study of electrochemical processes and reactions at the nanoscale, providing valuable insights into the relationship between surface topography, electrical properties, and chemical reactivity.
Schematic illustration of an electrochemical AFM setup
3D deposition and dissolution of copper on Au(111). 3D AFM images (time series) showing the growth and dissolution of a single Cu cluster. All images have a lateral size of 2 µm × 2 µm and a normalized vertical scale of 250 nm.(Image: Nanosurf)

Key Components of EC-AFM

An EC-AFM setup typically consists of the following key components:
  • AFM Probe: A conductive AFM probe, often made of metal-coated silicon or carbon-based materials, serves as the working electrode. The probe's sharp tip allows for high-resolution imaging and localized electrochemical measurements.
  • Electrochemical Cell: The sample is placed in an electrochemical cell that contains an electrolyte solution. The cell also includes a reference electrode (e.g., Ag/AgCl) to maintain a stable potential and a counter electrode (e.g., platinum wire) to complete the electrical circuit.
  • Potentiostat: A potentiostat is used to control the potential difference between the AFM probe and the sample. It allows for the application of specific potentials and the measurement of the resulting current, enabling various electrochemical techniques such as cyclic voltammetry and chronoamperometry.

Operational Modes of EC-AFM

EC-AFM can operate in different modes depending on the desired information and the nature of the sample:

In-situ Imaging

In this mode, the AFM probe scans the sample surface while it is immersed in the electrolyte solution. By applying a potential to the sample, electrochemical reactions can be induced, and the resulting changes in surface topography can be observed in real-time. This mode is particularly useful for studying processes such as electrodeposition, corrosion, and surface passivation.

Potential Mapping

EC-AFM can be used to map the local electrochemical potential distribution across a sample surface. By maintaining a constant tip-sample distance and measuring the potential difference between the tip and the sample at each point, a high-resolution potential map can be generated. This technique is valuable for investigating the electrochemical heterogeneity of surfaces, such as identifying active sites or studying potential-dependent phenomena.

Tip-Induced Reactions

The AFM probe can be used to induce localized electrochemical reactions on the sample surface. By applying a potential to the probe and bringing it into close proximity with the surface, highly confined electrochemical processes can be initiated and studied. This mode is useful for investigating the kinetics and mechanisms of electrochemical reactions, as well as for nanoscale patterning and modification of surfaces.

Applications of EC-AFM

EC-AFM finds applications in various fields related to electrochemistry and materials science:

Energy Storage and Conversion

EC-AFM is extensively used in the study of energy storage and conversion devices, such as batteries, fuel cells, and supercapacitors. It allows for the investigation of electrode materials, electrolyte interfaces, and charge transfer processes at the nanoscale. By correlating surface morphology with electrochemical activity, EC-AFM provides insights into the performance and degradation mechanisms of these devices.

Corrosion and Surface Protection

EC-AFM is a valuable tool for studying corrosion processes and evaluating the effectiveness of corrosion protection strategies. It enables the visualization of localized corrosion events, such as pitting and intergranular corrosion, and the assessment of protective coatings and inhibitors. EC-AFM can also be used to investigate the formation and stability of passive films on metal surfaces.

Sensor Development

EC-AFM plays a role in the development of electrochemical sensors and biosensors. By functionalizing the AFM probe with specific recognition elements, such as enzymes or antibodies, highly sensitive and selective sensing can be achieved. EC-AFM allows for the characterization of sensor surfaces, the optimization of immobilization strategies, and the study of analyte-receptor interactions at the nanoscale.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

Despite its powerful capabilities, EC-AFM also faces challenges. One of the main challenges is the complexity of the experimental setup and the need for specialized probes and instrumentation. The interpretation of EC-AFM data can also be challenging, as it requires a deep understanding of both AFM imaging and electrochemical processes.
Future developments in EC-AFM will focus on improving the spatial and temporal resolution of the technique. The integration of advanced probe designs, such as functionalized probes and nanoelectrode arrays, will enable the study of electrochemical processes with even higher sensitivity and specificity. The combination of EC-AFM with other analytical techniques, such as Raman spectroscopy and scanning electrochemical microscopy (SECM), will provide a more comprehensive understanding of electrochemical systems.

Further Reading