Scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) allows imaging conductive surfaces at the atomic scale. It is possible to characterize the distribution of surface terraces and steps, as well as to determine the atomic arrangement of (ordered) surface (over)structures.
In STM, an atomically sharp tip is scanned on a surface at a few-angstrom distance, while a bias voltage is applied between these two electrodes, so that a current flows due to the quantum tunneling effect. The intensity of the tunneling current depends exponentially on the tip-surface distance and can therefore be used to reconstruct a morphologic image.
STM is a local technique: while high-resolution can be achieved on small (nanometer sized) areas, information on large-scale (micron sized or more) is lost, and measurements have to be repeated systematically on several regions of the sample to get statistically relevant information.
Due to stability performances, STM experiments are typically time-consuming. The technique is applicable both in air and in vacuum. Ultra-high-vacuum (UHV) is required for the characterization of delicate, atomically clean systems.
The STM signal is not purely topographic, but brings also information on the local density of electronic states. Scanning tunneling spectroscopy (STS) is an extension of STM that provides information about the density of electrons in a sample as a function of their energy. Inelastic tunneling spectroscopy (IETS) is a challenging extension for the investigation of vibrational states at liquid helium temperature. The STM tip can also be used to manipulate single atoms and molecules.