The study of the structure and dynamics of atoms and their associated electron clouds in the vicinity of a surface, usually at the boundary between a solid and a low-density gas. Surface physics deals with those regions of large and rapid variations of atomic and electron density that occur in the vicinity of an interface between the two “bulk” components of a two-phase system. In conventional usage, surface physics is distinguished from interface physics by the restriction of the scope of the former to interfaces between a solid (or liquid) and a low-density gas, often at ultrahigh-vacuum pressures p = 10-10 torr (1.33 × 10-8 newton/m2 or 10-13 atm). See Solid-state physics
Surface physics is concerned with two separate but complementary areas of investigation into the properties of such solid-“vacuum” interfaces. Interest centers on the experimental determination and theoretical prediction of surface composition and structure (that is, the masses, charges, and positions of surface species), of the dynamics of surface atoms (such as surface diffusion and vibrational motion), and of the energetics and dynamics of electrons in the vicinity of a surface (such as electron density profiles and localized electronic surface states). As a practical matter, however, the nature and dynamics of surface species are determined experimentally by scattering and emission measurements involving particles or electromagnetic fields (or both) external to the surface itself. Thus, a second major interest in surface physics is the study of the interaction of external entities (that is, atoms, ions, electrons, electromagnetic fields, or mechanical probes) with solids at their vacuum interfaces. It is this aspect of surface physics that most clearly distinguishes it from conventional solid-state physics, because quite different scattering, emission, and local probe experiments are utilized to examine surface as opposed to bulk properties.
Techniques for characterizing the solid-vacuum interface are based on one of three simple physical mechanisms for achieving surface sensitivity. The first, which is the basis for field emission, field ionization, and scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), is the achievement of surface sensitivity by utilizing electron tunneling through the potential-energy barrier at a surface. This concept provides the basis for the development of STM to directly examine the atomic structure of surfaces by measuring with atomic resolution the tunneling current at various positions along a surface. It also has been utilized for direct determinations of the energies of individual electronic orbitals of adsorbed complexes via the measurement of the energy distributions either of emitted electrons or of Auger electrons emitted in the process of neutralizing a slow (energy E ∼ 10 eV) external ion. See Scanning tunneling microscope, Tunneling in solids
The second mechanism for achieving surface sensitivity is the examination of the elastic scattering or emission of particles which interact strongly with the constituents of matter, for example, “low energy” (E ≲ 103 eV) electrons, thermal atoms and molecules, or “slow” (300 eV ≲ E ≲ 103 eV) ions. Since such entities lose appreciable (ΔE ∼ 10 eV) energy in distances of the order of tenths of a nanometer, typical electron analyzers with resolutions of tenths of an electronvolt are readily capable of identifying scattering and emission processes which occur in the upper few atomic layers of a solid. This second mechanism is responsible for the surface sensitivity of photoemission, Auger electron, electron characteristic loss, low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), and ion scattering spectroscopy techniques. The strong particle-solid interaction criterion that renders these measurements surface-sensitive is precisely the opposite of that used in selecting bulk solid-state spectroscopies. In this case, weak particle-solid interactions (that is, penetrating radiation) are desired in order to sample the bulk of the specimen via, for example, x-rays, thermal neutrons, or fast (E ≲ 104 eV) electrons. These probes, however, can sometimes be used to study surface properties by virtue of special geometry, for example, the use of glancing-angle x-ray diffraction to determine surface atomic structure. See Auger effect, Electron diffraction, Photoemission, X-ray crystallography
The third mechanism for achieving surface sensitivity is the direct measurement of the force on a probe in mechanical contact or near contact with the surface. At near contact, the van der Waals force can be measured directly by probes of suitable sensitivity. After contact is made, a variety of other forces dominate, for example, the capillary force for solid surfaces covered with thin layers of adsorbed liquid (that is, most solid surfaces in air at atmospheric pressure). When this mechanism is utilized via measuring the deflection of a sharp tip mounted on a cantilever near a surface, the experiment is referred to as atomic force microscopy (AFM) and results in maps of the force across the surface. Under suitable circumstances, atomic resolution can be achieved by this method as well as by STM. Atomic force microscopy opens the arena of microscopic surface characterization of insulating samples as well as electrochemical and biochemical interfaces at atmospheric pressure. Thus, its development is a major driving force for techniques based on surface physics. See Intermolecular forces
Another reason for the renaissance in surface physics is the capability to generate in a vacuum chamber special surfaces that approximate the ideal of being atomically flat. These surfaces may be prepared by cycles of fast-ion bombardment, thermal outgassing, and thermal annealing for bulk samples (for example, platelets with sizes of the order of 1 cm × 1 cm × 1 mm), molecular beam epitaxy of a thin surface layer on a suitably prepared substrate, or field evaporation of etched tips for field-ion microscopes. Alternatively, the sample may be cleaved in a vacuum chamber. In such a fashion, reasonable facsimiles of uncontaminated, atomically flat solid-vacuum interfaces of many metals and semiconductors have been prepared and subsequently characterized by various spectroscopic techniques. Such characterizations must be carried out in an ultrahigh vacuum (p ∼ 10-8 N/m2) so that the surface composition and structure are not altered by gas adsorption during the course of the measurements.