Conductive atomic force microscopy (CAFM) is one of the most powerful techniques in studying the electrical properties of various materials at the nanoscale. However, understanding current fluctuations within one study (due to degradation of the probe tips) and from one study to another (due to the use of probe tips with different characteristics), are still two major problems that may drive CAFM researchers to extract wrong conclusions. In this manuscript, these two issues are statistically analyzed by collecting experimental CAFM data and processing them using two different computational models. Our study indicates that: (i) before their complete degradation, CAFM tips show a stable state with degraded conductance, which is difficult to detect and it requires CAFM tip conductivity characterization before and after the CAFM experiments; and (ii) CAFM tips with low spring constants may unavoidably lead to the presence of a ~1.2 nm thick water film at the tip/sample junction, even if the maximum contact force allowed by the setup is applied. These two phenomena can easily drive CAFM users to overestimate the properties of the samples under test (e.g., oxide thickness). Our study can help researchers to better understand the current shifts that were observed during their CAFM experiments, as well as which probe tip to use and how it degrades. Ultimately, this work may contribute to enhancing the reliability of CAFM investigations.
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