Scanning Tunneling Microscope - Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer

The History of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope

The scanning tunneling microscope or STM is widely used in both industrial and fundamental research to obtain atomic scale images of metal surfaces. It provides a three-dimensional profile of the surface, which is very useful for characterizing surface roughness, observing surface defects, and determining the size and conformation of molecules and aggregates on the surface. 

Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer are the inventors of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) invented in 1981, which provided the first images of individual atoms on the surfaces of materials.

Gerd Binning

From an IBM press release: Gerd Binnig, along with a colleague, Heinrich Rohrer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1986 for his work in scanning tunneling microscopy. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1947, Dr. Binnig attended J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt. He received a bachelor's degree in 1973 and received his doctorate five years later in 1978.

He joined a physics research group at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory that same year. Dr. Binnig was assigned to IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California from 1985 to 1986, and was a visiting professor at nearby Stanford University from 1987 to 1988. He was appointed an IBM Fellow in 1987 and remains a research staff member at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory. 

Binnig and Rohrer were recognized for developing the powerful microscopy technique that forms an image of individual atoms on a metal or semiconductor surface by scanning the tip of a needle over the surface at a height of only a few atomic diameters.

They shared the award with German scientist Ernst Ruska, the designer of the first electron microscope.

Heinrich Rohrer

From an IBM Press Release: Born in Buchs, Switzerland in 1933, Dr. Rohrer was educated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich where he received his bachelor's degree in 1955 and his doctorate in 1960.

After doing post-doctoral work at the Swiss Federal Institute and Rutgers University in the U.S., Dr. Rohrer joined IBM's newly formed Zurich Research Laboratory, studying -- among other things -- Kondo materials and antiferromagnets. He then turned his attention to scanning tunneling microscopy. Dr. Rohrer was appointed an IBM Fellow in 1986 and was manager of the Physical Sciences Department at the Zurich Research Laboratory from 1986 to 1988. He retired from IBM in July 1997.

Several scanning microscopies use the scanning technology developed for the STM.

The Topografiner

The Topografiner was invented by Russell Young and his colleagues between 1965 and 1971 at the National Bureau of Standards, currently known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This microscope works on the principle that the left and right piezo drivers scan the tip over and slightly above the specimen surface. The center piezo is controlled by a servo system to maintain a constant voltage, resulting in a consistent vertical separation between the tip and the surface. An electron multiplier detects the tiny fraction of the tunneling current which is scattered by the specimen surface.

Russell Young

Russell Young obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1953.

He received his PhD in physics from Pennsylvania State University in 1959. He remained at Penn State, working in the laboratory of Professor Erwin Mueller for his postdoctoral research, which was marked by several outstanding achievements. 

Among these were the development of a high resolution field emission energy analyzer and the first measurement of the total energy distribution of field-emitted electrons. Young also made contributions to the development of the low temperature field ion microscope. He came to the National Bureau of Standards in 1961. His development of the Topografiner was an outgrowth of his continued study of surfaces at NBS. After the termination of this project in 1971, he remained at NBS in both a technical and an administrative role until his retirement in 1981. He has actively pursued his interests as an inventor since retirement -- as a private consultant to industry and government including NIST, as a grandfather and as a sailor.

Photos of Binnig and Rohrer Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation. Unauthorized use not permitted.

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Bellis, Mary. "Scanning Tunneling Microscope - Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer." ThoughtCo, Aug. 18, 2016, Bellis, Mary. (2016, August 18). Scanning Tunneling Microscope - Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Scanning Tunneling Microscope - Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 20, 2018).