The tip-sample water bridge and light emission from scanning tunnelling microscopy

Michael Boyle, Joy Mitra, Paul Dawson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


The light emission spectrum from a scanning tunnelling microscope (LESTM) is investigated as a function of relative humidity and shown to provide a novel and sensitive means for probing the growth and properties of a water meniscus on the nanometre scale. An empirical model of the light emission process is formulated and applied successfully to replicate the decay in light intensity and spectral changes observed with increasing relative humidity. The modelling indicates a progressive water filling of the tip-sample junction with increasing humidity or, more pertinently, of the volume of the localized surface plasmons responsible for light emission; it also accounts for the effect of asymmetry in structuring of the water molecules with respect to the polarity of the applied bias. This is juxtaposed with the case of a non-polar liquid in the tip-sample nanocavity where no polarity dependence of the light emission is observed. In contrast to the discrete detection of the presence/absence of a water bridge in other scanning probe experiments through measurement of the feedback parameter for instrument control, LESTM offers a means of continuously monitoring the development of the water bridge with sub-nanometre sensitivity. The results are relevant to applications such as dip-pen nanolithography and electrochemical scanning probe microscopy.
Original languageEnglish
Article number335202
Issue number33
Early online date28 Jul 2009
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Chemistry(all)
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Materials Science(all)

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'The tip-sample water bridge and light emission from scanning tunnelling microscopy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this