In this paper, we demonstrate how the simultaneous application of atomic force microscopy (AFM) and confocal scanning laser microscopy (CSLM) can be used to characterize the (local) rheological properties of soft condensed matter at micrometer length scales. Measurement of AFM force curves as a function of the indentation amplitude and speed (magnitude and direction) can produce a "mechanical fingerprint" that contains information about material stiffness, hysteretic losses, and time scales for stress relaxation and/or network recovery. The simultaneous CSLM visualization of changes in the material's structure provides complementary information about how the material accommodates the indentation load. Since these experiments are done on areas of O(100 um2) on materials having a surface of O(1 cm2), the measurements can be repeated on "fresh" material many times, contrary to traditional rheometers where the whole sample is loaded at once. As a particular example, we consider the case of a network of aggregated water-in-oil (W/O) emulsion droplets, in which the mechanical behavior changes drastically over time. Whereas the freshly prepared material shows a soft plastic behavior, after a time lapse of several weeks, the very same sample shows a much stiffer and elastic response. This drastic change in behavior is clearly reflected both in the signature of the AFM force curves and in (the reversibility of) the structural deformations observed with CSLM. The fact that these drastic mechanical changes take place without significant changes in the structure of the material (before loading) indicates that the stiffening of the droplet network is caused by an increase in the strength of the bonds between droplets. A remarkable finding for the elastic droplet network is that, while the structure recovers completely after the indenter is taken out, there is still an appreciable hysteresis in the force curves, indicating that dissipation also occurs. This hysteresis was not found to depend on the indentation speed.
Filip, D., Duits, M. H. G., Uricanu, V. I., & Mellema, J. (2006). Plastic-to-Elastic Transition in Aggregated Emulsion Networks, Studied with Atomic Force Microscopy-Confocal Scanning Laser Microscopy Microrheology. Langmuir, 22(10), 4558-4566. https://doi.org/10.1021/la0600898