Contact-free calibration of an asymmetric multi-layer interferometer for the Surface Force Balance

The Surface Force Balance (SFB, also known as Surface Force Apparatus, SFA) has provided important insights into many phenomena within the field of colloid and interface science. The technique relies on using white light interferometry to measure the distance between surfaces with sub-nanometer resolution. Up until now, the determination of the distance between the surfaces required a so-called “contact calibration,” an invasive procedure during which the surfaces are brought into mechanical contact. This requirement for a contact calibration limits the range of experimental systems that can be investigated with SFB, for example, it precludes experiments with substrates that would be irreversibly modified or damaged by mechanical contact. Here we present a non-invasive method to measure absolute distances without performing a contact calibration. The method can be used for both “symmetric” and “asymmetric” systems. We foresee many applications for this general approach including, most immediately, experiments using single layer graphene electrodes in the SFB which may be damaged when brought into mechanical contact.