Using a familiar tool in a way it was never intended to be used opens up a whole new method to explore materials, reported National Science Foundation-funded researchers. Their specific findings could someday create much more energy-efficient computer chips, but the new technique itself could open up new discoveries. Atomic force microscopes (AFM) drag an ultra sharp tip across materials, ever so close but never touching the surface. The tip can feel where the surface is, detecting electric and magnetic forces produced by the material. By methodically passing it back and forth, a researcher can map out the surface properties of a material in the same way a surveyor methodically paces across a piece of land to map the territory. AFMs can give a map of a material's holes, protrusions, and properties at a scale thousands of times smaller than a grain of salt. AFMs are designed to investigate surfaces. Most of the time, the user tries very hard not to actually bump the material with the tip, as that could damage the surface of the material. But sometimes it happens. What would happen if you intentionally used the tip of an AFM like a chisel, and dug into a material? Would it be able to map out the electrical and magnetic properties layer by layer, building up a 3D picture of the material's properties the same way it mapped the surface in 2D? And would the properties look any different deep inside a material?
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