A chip designed at the University of Chemnitz in Germany has a sensor, a miniscule electrostatically-operated linear drive, and a measuring device on top, despite being only one square millimeter in size. The sensor itself tapers to a fine point, whose radius measures only 20 millionths of a millimeter.This new system can measure, say its creators, a difference in height from 20 thousandths of a millimeter with a resolution of one millionth almost down to the size of an atom. Conventional measuring systems are not capable of recognizing such height differences. Another breakthrough is that the chip, including the testing pod, is produced in one swift process, thus eliminating unnecessary manufacturing costs.
With an almost contact-free operation, the new chip can be used to measure the surface roughness as well as the shape of the microparts in quality control. This same chip is also well suited for the newly developed scanning power microscope. This new type of microscope glides over surfaces similar to a needle on a phonograph, but much more delicately.
Also, many chips can be laid side-by-side, in ‘array’. This allows larger areas to be measured than in the past, and in considerably less time. The pod can oscillate back and forth a few thousand times per second, with the frequency and deflection changing the closer the pod comes to the surface, and the changes recorded on a computer.Researchers are currently trying to harness these benefits, working on a comprehensive characterization of the system components and a more manageable way to operate the entire system.