Journal article Open Access
Scattering-type scanning near-field microscopy (s-SNOM) at terahertz (THz) frequencies could become a highly valuable tool for studying a variety of phenomena of both fundamental and applied interest, including mobile carrier excitations or phase transitions in 2D materials or exotic conductors. Applications, however, are strongly challenged by the limited signal-to-noise ratio. One major reason is that standard atomic force microscope (AFM) tips – which have made s-SNOM a highly practical and rapidly emerging tool - provide weak scattering efficiencies at THz frequencies. Here we report a combined experimental and theoretical study of commercial and custom-made AFM tips of different apex diameter and length, in order to understand signal formation in THz s-SNOM and to provide insights for tip optimization. Contrary to common beliefs, we find that AFM tips with large (micrometer-scale) apex diameter can enhance s-SNOM signals by more than one order of magnitude, while still offering a spatial resolution of about 100 nm at a wavelength of λ = 119 μm. On the other hand, exploiting the increase of s-SNOM signals with tip length, we succeeded in sub-15 nm (<λ/8000) resolved THz imaging employing a tungsten tip with 6 nm apex radius. We explain our findings and provide novel insights into s-SNOM via rigorous numerical modeling of the near-field scattering process. Our findings will be of critical importance for pushing THz nanoscopy to its ultimate limits regarding sensitivity and spatial resolution.