Research Article: Maximising the resolving power of the scanning tunneling microscope

Date Published: June 7, 2018

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

Author(s): Lewys Jones, Shuqiu Wang, Xiao Hu, Shams ur Rahman, Martin R. Castell.


The usual way to present images from a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) is to take multiple images of the same area, to then manually select the one that appears to be of the highest quality, and then to discard the other almost identical images. This is in contrast to most other disciplines where the signal to noise ratio (SNR) of a data set is improved by taking repeated measurements and averaging them. Data averaging can be routinely performed for 1D spectra, where their alignment is straightforward. However, for serial-acquired 2D STM images the nature and variety of image distortions can severely complicate accurate registration. Here, we demonstrate how a significant improvement in the resolving power of the STM can be achieved through automated distortion correction and multi-frame averaging (MFA) and we demonstrate the broad utility of this approach with three examples. First, we show a sixfold enhancement of the SNR of the Si(111)-(7 × 7) reconstruction. Next, we demonstrate that images with sub-picometre height precision can be routinely obtained and show this for a monolayer of Ti2O3 on Au(111). Last, we demonstrate the automated classification of the two chiral variants of the surface unit cells of the (4 × 4) reconstructed SrTiO3(111) surface. Our new approach to STM imaging will allow a wealth of structural and electronic information from surfaces to be extracted that was previously buried in noise.

Partial Text

The resolution of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) has barely improved since its inception [1]. Only small advances have been achieved through low noise electronics, enhanced vibration damping, and low-temperature operation. These incremental gains stand in stark contrast to the advances made with the atomic force microscope (AFM). Where AFM was initially the poor cousin to the atomic resolution STM, it is now possible to take non-contact AFM (nc-AFM) images with intramolecular resolution [2]. The advantage, however, that the STM still has over nc-AFM is that the scan speed is typically around two orders of magnitude faster. In effect, this means that for the time taken to acquire one nc-AFM image it is possible to acquire around a hundred STM images. To date, this has not been viewed as a particularly significant advantage because operator practice is such that only the best one of these hundred images will be used and the others discarded. However, if all the hundred images are averaged then we would expect a tenfold improvement in the signal to noise ratio (SNR) as the random noise diminishes with the square root of the number of averaged images [3]. This improved SNR leads to a commensurate increase in the resolving power of the STM. The reason that this kind of multi-frame averaging (MFA) has so far not been performed routinely is that unique and locally varying distortions in each of the images prevent them from being aligned in perfect registry with each other.

Artefacts present in individual STM images can include affine-distortion (shear/stretch), non-linear scanning distortion, and abrupt image contrast changes resulting from structural tip changes. These artefacts arise due to thermal drift between the sample and the tip, piezo-scanner hysteresis, or from the laboratory environment, and are generally exacerbated as field-of-view or scanning time increase. Thus, the resolution of a single STM image is determined by the combination of imaging/instrumental artefacts and the intrinsic limit to resolution due to quantum mechanical interactions. In reality, it is the artefacts that limit the resolving power of most STMs. Imaging artefacts are often hidden by using filters such as median (real-space), Wiener and low-pass (Fourier-space) filters [24]. Nevertheless, median filters can distort the lattice or blur structural features. Wiener filters and low-pass filters involving Fourier transforms can introduce artificial periodicities or modify existing periodic features. A further point is that filters contain subjective elements where the researcher selects a specific filter to give the impression of resolution enhancement. However, we have shown in this paper that the MFA approach does not require any filtering steps. The scan-corrected images are reliable and highly reproducible due to the simple averaging process.

With the three examples presented here, we have demonstrated the fidelity, sensitivity, and selectivity that can be achieved for STM data when using a multi-frame averaging (MFA) approach. This approach is made possible by the robust and automated non-rigid registration afforded by the SmartAlign software package. We demonstrate the approximately square-root relationship improvement in SNR upon image averaging, a sub-picometre precision height measurement, and the automated identification of chiral unit cells on a surface. These automated tools, which do not require prior knowledge of the surface structure, promise to facilitate more rapid and higher-precision studies of surfaces, making full use of the experimentalists recorded data sets. This advance allows a new study of surface pico-science to be developed where subtle variations in surface structure can now be seen, that hitherto were not detected because they were buried in noise. In future developments, it would be interesting to combine MFA with automated probe microscopy [28], to remove the substantial operator time commitment in obtaining hundreds of STM images of the same area.

UHV-STM images were taken using two JEOL instruments, a JSTM4500s and a JSTM4500xt, both operating at a base pressure of 10−8 Pa. Constant current STM images were taken at room temperature using etched tungsten tips. The B-doped Si(111) samples were prepared by flashing at 1200 °C for 15 s to desorb the native oxide and cooled to room temperature to allow the (7 × 7) reconstruction to form. The (2 × 2) Ti2O3 honeycomb ultrathin films on Au(111) substrates were grown according to the description detailed in Ref. [15]. The SrTiO3(111)-(4 × 4) reconstructions were generated on 0.5 wt% Nb-doped samples according to the recipe described in Ref. [18].




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