Park Systems

Atomic force microscopy’s (AFM) advent at the start of the semiconductor boom provided the technology an introduction into the private sector, but AFM’s potential is still being discovered. Park Systems specializes in AFM systems for research and industrial applications. AFM both measures and provides an image of a sample’s surface with subnanometer resolution by running a cantilevered tip over the surface and measuring the movement of the tip with a laser. Having refined its technology for semiconductor and data storage applications, Park Systems is steadily branching out in other directions.

Park Systems was founded in 1997 by Dr. Sang-il Park after he sold his previous company, Park Scientific, to Thermo Spectra (see IBO 1/31/97). Dr. Sung Park, the company’s vice president of Operations, said its products first attracted materials science and research labs of universities. The company differentiates itself from other AFM manufacturers with its main product, the XE AFM, which features a unique scanning platform. AFMs use piezoelectric tubes as their x-y-z scanners. Moving the tube entails minor bending of it, which is corrected with postscanning software. The XE decouples the z scanner from its x and y scanners with a two-dimensional stage as its x and y axis, which cuts the bending and increases its precision. Dr. Park described another innovation of the technology: “Because we have a high bandwidth, we can feedback-control our z faster than anybody else. We can operate our tool in a regime called ‘true noncontact’, where we are just hovering over the surface and can get the topography without tapping. ‘True noncontact’ gets better resolution and more reproducible data.”

Park Systems has also combined its AFM with Horiba’s Raman spectroscopy system to create the XE-NSOM (near field scanning optical microscope). “Worldwide, we have sold a fair amount of systems. The customer base is half biology and half semiconductor,” said Dr. Park.

Although the company focuses on the semiconductor industry, it is using the capital and experience it has gathered from those sales to enter new markets. Later this year, it will introduce the XE Bio AFM for imaging soft biological samples. “The tip [usually] exerts a certain amount of force in the range of nano-newtons or even down to pico-newtons, that’s still a fair amount of pressure or force when you’re dealing with living cells. What we’ve done is incorporated a technique called Ion Conductance Microscopy, where you can actually measure the ionic current that flows through an attached micropipette and use the ionic current as a feedback mechanism.” Further describing the AFM, which can be attached to an inverted optical microscope, he stated “what you can do when you have this tool is hover over the membrane of a live cell without exerting any force at all.”

The current customer base of Park Systems is 60% academia and 40% industrial. The company has about 100 employees and is profitable. Describing future plans, Dr. Park stated: “If there are applications where the same measurements have to be done repeatedly by a poorly trained person, I think that’s the kind of application we’re also looking for because, for example, that’s the kind of application we have in the storage market.”

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