In the 2016 edition, the Kavli Prize – nanoscience was awarded to the three scientists who invented the atomic force microscope (AFM): Gerd Binnig (IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Switzerland), Christoph Gerber (University of Basel, Switzerland) and Calvin Quate (Stanford University, USA). The Kavli Prize has been awarded since 2008 in the fields of Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience by the Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
The atomic force microscope (AFM), created in the mid-1980s, was the first instrument that made possible viewing details of different kinds of materials with a resolution of less than a nanometer (on the order of angstroms). More recently, this instrument has also been used to manipulate surfaces with atomic precision, in which atoms can be pushed, pulled or slid on a surface, one by one, with the tip of the microscope.
According to the Kavli Prize website, the history of the atomic force microscope goes back to 1981 when the German physicist Gerd Binnig, along with Heinrich Rohrer and collaborators invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in the IBM labs in Zürich (Switzerland). That was the first instrument that showed the composition of materials on the nanoscale, with a resolution of a few nanometers. The STM, however, had a serious limitation: it could only be used to image conductive materials. So Binnig thought about the changes he could make on the microscope that would overcome this obstacle.
In 1985 he filed the patent application of the AFM, which could produce images of samples of all kinds. He then summoned two scientists he had worked with in the development of the STM (Gerber and Quate). Together they set up the first AFM and conducted the first experiments, whose results were published in the journal Physical Review Letters in March 1986.
After three decades developing the technique and the instrument, the atomic force microscopy has now several new modes to use it, new spin-off instruments and new fields of application (including the Life Sciences).
More information on the AFM and its inventors is available in the Kavli Prize website: http://www.kavliprize.org/prizes-and-laureates/prizes/2016-kavli-prize-nanoscience