Just like any other tool, an atomic force microscopy's usefulness has limitations. When determining whether or not analyzing a sample with an AFM is appropriate, there are various advantages and disadvantages that must be considered.
AFM has several advantages over the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Unlike the electron microscope which provides a two-dimensional projection or a two-dimensional image of a sample, the AFM provides a three-dimensional surface profile. Additionally, samples viewed by AFM do not require any special treatments (such as metal/carbon coatings) that would irreversibly change or damage the sample. While an electron microscope needs an expensive vacuum environment for proper operation, most atomic force microscopy modes can work perfectly well in ambient air or even a liquid environment. This makes it possible to study biological macromolecules and even living organisms. In principle, AFM can provide higher resolution than SEM. It has been shown to give true atomic resolution in ultra-high vacuum (UHV) and, more recently, in liquid environments. High resolution AFM is comparable in resolution to scanning tunneling microscopy and transmission electron microscopy.
A disadvantage of AFM compared with the scanning electron microscope (SEM) is the single scan image size. In one pass, the SEM can image an area on the order of square millimeters with a depth of field on the order of millimeters. Whereas the AFM can only image a maximum height on the order of 10-20 micrometers and a maximum scanning area of about 150×150 micrometers. One method of improving the scanned area size for AFM is by using parallel probes in a fashion similar to that of millipede data storage.
The scanning speed of an AFM is also a limitation. Traditionally, an AFM cannot scan images as fast as a SEM, requiring several minutes for a typical scan, while a SEM is capable of scanning at near real-time, although at relatively low quality. The relatively slow rate of scanning during AFM imaging often leads to thermal drift in the image making the AFM microscope less suited for measuring accurate distances between topographical features on the image. However, several fast-acting designs were suggested to increase microscope scanning productivity including what is being termed videoAFM (reasonable quality images are being obtained with videoAFM at video rate: faster than the average SEM). To eliminate image distortions induced by thermal drift, several methods have been introduced.
AFM images can also be affected by hysteresis of the piezoelectric material and cross-talk between the x, y, z axes that may require software enhancement and filtering. Such filtering could "flatten" out real topographical features. However, newer AFMs utilize closed-loop scanners which practically eliminate these problems. Some AFMs also use separated orthogonal scanners (as opposed to a single tube) which also serve to eliminate part of the cross-talk problems.
As with any other imaging technique, there is the possibility of image artifacts, which could be induced by an unsuitable tip, a poor operating environment, or even by the sample itself. These image artifacts are unavoidable however, their occurrence and effect on results can be reduced through various methods.
Due to the nature of AFM probes, they cannot normally measure steep walls or overhangs. Specially made cantilevers and AFMs can be used to modulate the probe sideways as well as up and down (as with dynamic contact and non-contact modes) to measure sidewalls, at the cost of more expensive cantilevers, lower lateral resolution and additional artifacts.