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May 18, 2008

Wikipedia: Scanning electron microscope

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These pollen grains taken on an SEM show the characteristic depth of field of SEM micrographs.

These pollen grains taken on an SEM show the characteristic depth of field of SEM micrographs.

SEM opened sample chamber

SEM opened sample chamber

The scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope that images the sample surface by scanning it with a high-energy beam of electrons in a raster scan pattern. The electrons interact with the atoms that make up the sample producing signals that contain information about the sample’s surface topography, composition and other properties such as electrical conductivity.

The types of signals made by an SEM can include secondary electrons, back scattered electrons, characteristic x-rays and light (cathodoluminescence). These signals come from the beam of electrons striking the surface of the specimen and interacting with the sample at or near its surface. In its primary detection mode, secondary electron imaging, the SEM can produce very high-resolution images of a sample surface, revealing details about 1 to 5 nm in size. Due to the way these images are created, SEM micrographs have a very large depth of focus yielding a characteristic three-dimensional appearance useful for understanding the surface structure of a sample. This great depth of field and the wide range of magnifications (commonly from about 25 times to 250,000 times) are available in the most common imaging mode for specimens in the SEM, secondary electron imaging, such as the micrograph taken of pollen shown to the right. Characteristic x-rays are the second most common imaging mode for an SEM. X-rays are emitted when the electron beam removes an inner shell electron from the sample, causing a higher energy electron to fill the shell and give off energy. These characteristic x-rays are used to identify the elemental composition of the sample. Back-scattered electrons (BSE) that come from the sample may also be used to form an image. BSE images are often used in analytical SEM along with the spectra made from the characteristic x-rays as clues to the elemental composition of the sample.



The first SEM image was obtained by Max Knoll, who in 1935 obtained an image of silicon steel showing electron channeling contrast.[1] Further pioneering work on the physical principles of the SEM and beam specimen interactions was performed by Manfred von Ardenne in 1937[2][3], who produced a British patent[4] but never made a practical instrument. The SEM was further developed by Professor Sir Charles Oatley and his postgraduate student Gary Stewart and was first marketed in 1965 by the Cambridge Instrument Company as the “Stereoscan”. The first instrument was delivered to the DuPont.

Scanning process and image formation

In a typical SEM, electrons are thermionically emitted from a tungsten filament cathode and are accelerated towards an anode. Tungsten is normally used in thermionic electron guns because it has the highest melting point and lowest vapour pressure of all metals, thereby allowing it to be heated for electron emission. Other electron sources include lanthanum hexaboride (LaB6) cathodes, which can be used in a standard tungsten filament SEM if the vacuum system is upgraded. Electrons can also be emitted using a field emission gun (FEG), which may be of the cold-cathode type or the thermally-assisted Schottky type.

The electron beam, which typically has an energy ranging from a few hundred eV to 40 keV, is focused by one or two condenser lenses into a beam with a very fine focal spot sized 0.4 nm to 5 nm. The beam passes through pairs of scanning coils or pairs of deflector plates in the electron column, typically in the final lens, which deflect the beam horizontally and vertically so that it scans in a raster fashion over a rectangular area of the sample surface.

When the primary electron beam interacts with the sample, the electrons lose energy by repeated scattering and absorption within a teardrop-shaped volume of the specimen known as the interaction volume, which extends from less than 100 nm to around 5 µm into the surface. The size of the interaction volume depends on the electron’s landing energy, the atomic number of the specimen and the specimen’s density. The energy exchange between the electron beam and the sample results in the reflection of high-energy electrons by elastic scattering, emission of secondary electrons by inelastic scattering and the emission of electromagnetic radiation which can be detected to produce an image, as described below.

Electronic devices are used to detect and amplify the signals and display them as an image on a cathode ray tube in which the raster scanning is synchronised with that of the microscope. The image displayed is therefore a distribution map of the intensity of the signal being emitted from the scanned area of the specimen. The image may be captured by photography from a high resolution cathode ray tube, but in modern machines is digitally captured and displayed on a computer monitor.


Magnification in a SEM can be controlled over a range of about 5 orders of magnitude from x25 or less to x 250,000 or more. Unlike optical and transmission electron microscopes, image magnification in the SEM is not a function of the power of the objective lens. SEMs may have condenser and objective lenses, but their function is to focus the beam to a spot, and not to image the specimen. Provided the electron gun can generate a beam with sufficiently small diameter, an SEM could in principle work entirely without condenser or objective lenses, although it might not be very versatile or achieve very high resolution. In an SEM, as in scanning probe microscopy, magnification results from the ratio of the dimensions of the raster on the specimen and the raster on the display device. Assuming that the display screen has a fixed size, higher magnification results from reducing the size of the raster on the specimen, and vice versa. Magnification is therefore controlled by the current supplied to the x,y scanning coils, and not by objective lens power.

Sample preparation

An insect coated in gold, having been prepared for viewing with a scanning electron microscope.

An insect coated in gold, having been prepared for viewing with a scanning electron microscope.

The SEM requires that specimens be conductive for the electron beam to scan the surface and that the electrons have a path to ground. All samples must also be trimmed to an appropriate size to fit in the specimen chamber and generally mounted on some sort of holder.

Metals require little special preparation for SEM except for mounting on an appropriate speciment holder.

Nonconductive solid specimens are coated with a layer of conductive material, except when observed with variable vacuum or Environmental SEMs. An ultrathin coating of electrically-conducting material such as, gold, gold/palladium alloy, platinum, tungsten or graphite is deposited on the sample either by low vacuum sputter coating or by high vacuum evaporation. This is done to prevent the accumulation of static electric charge on the specimen during electron irradiation. Another reason for coating, even when there is more than enough conductivity, is to improve contrast and resolution, a situation most common when using a FESEM (field emission SEM) and samples with low atomic number.

Embedding in a resin with further polishing to a mirror-like finish can be used for both biological and materials specimens when imaging in backscattered electrons or when doing quantitative X-ray microanalysis.

Biological samples

A biological specimen normally requires fixation to preserve its structure. This is usually performed by incubation in a solution of a buffered chemical fixative, such as glutaraldehyde or paraformaldehyde. Biological specimens are dehydrated, usually by replacing water in the cell with organic solvents such as ethanol or, and then by replacing these solvents in turn with a transitional fluid such as liquid carbon dioxide in critical point drying. If the SEM is equipped with a cold stage for cryo-microscopy, cryofixation may be used and low-temperature scanning electron microscopy performed on the cryogenically fixed specimens.[5] Cryo-fixed specimens may be cryo-fractured under vacuum in a special apparatus to reveal internal structure, sputter coated and transferred onto the SEM cryo-stage while still frozen.

Freeze-fracturing, freeze-etch or freeze&break is a preparation method particularly useful for examining lipid membranes and their incorporated proteins in “face on” view. The preparation method reveals the proteins embedded in the lipid bilayer.

Sputter-coated gold has a high atomic number and produces high topographic contrast and resolution but the coating has finite thickness, and can obscure the underlying fine detail of the specimen for very high magnification images. Low-vacuum SEMs with differential pumping apertures allow samples to be imaged without such coating and without the loss of natural contrast caused by the coating.


Back scattered electron imaging, quantitative x-ray analysis, and x-ray mapping of geological specimens and metals requires that the surfaces be ground, mounted, sanded, and polished to an ultra smooth surface. Geological specimens that undergo WDS or EDS analysis are often carbon coated. Metals are not generally coated prior to imaging in the SEM because they are conductive and provide their own pathway to ground.

Fractography is the study of fractured surfaces that can be done on a light microscope or commonly, on an SEM. The fractured surface is cut to a suitable size, cleaned of any organic residues, and mounted on a specimen holder for viewing in the SEM.

Integrated circuits may be cut with a FIB or other ion milling instrument for viewing in the SEM. The SEM in the first case may be incorporated into the FIB.

Metals, geological specimens, and integrated circuits all may also be chemically polished for viewing in the SEM.

Special high resolution coating techniques are required for high magnification imaging of inorganic thin films.


The accumulation of electric charge on the surfaces of non-metallic specimens can be avoided by using environmental SEM in which the specimen is placed in an internal chamber at higher pressure than the vacuum in the electron optical column. Positively charged ions generated by beam interactions with the gas help to neutralize the negative charge on the specimen surface. The pressure of gas in the chamber can be controlled, and the type of gas used can be varied according to need. Coating is thus unnecessary, and X-ray analysis unhindered.

Detection of secondary electrons

The most common imaging mode collects low energy ( 50 eV) secondary electrons. Due to their low energy, these electrons originate within a few nanometers from the sample surface.[6] The electrons are detected by an Everhart-Thornley detector[7] which is a type of scintillator-photomultiplier device. The resulting signal is displayed as a two-dimensional intensity distribution that can be viewed and saved as a digital image. This process relies on a raster-scanned primary beam. The brightness of the signal depends on the number of secondary electrons reaching the detector. If the beam enters the sample perpendicular to the surface, then the activated region is uniform about the axis of the beam and a certain number of electrons “escape” from within the sample. As the angle of incidence increases, the “escape” distance of one side of the beam will decrease, and more secondary electrons will be emitted. Thus steep surfaces and edges tend to be brighter than flat surfaces, which results in images with a well-defined, three-dimensional appearance. Using this technique, image resolution less than 1 nm is possible.

Detection of backscattered electrons

Comparison of SEM techniques:  * backscattered electrons analysis - composition resolution  * secondary electrons analysis - relief

Comparison of SEM techniques:
* backscattered electrons analysis – composition resolution
* secondary electrons analysis – relief

Backscattered electrons consist of high-energy electrons originating in the electron beam, that are reflected or back-scattered out of the specimen interaction volume. Backscattered electrons may be used to detect contrast between areas with different chemical compositions, especially when the average atomic number of the various regions is different, since the brightness of the BSE image tends to increase with the atomic number.[6]. Strong topographic contrast also is produced with a directional detector collecting these electrons from one side above the specimen; the contrast appears as illumination of the topography from that side.

Backscattered electrons can also be used to form an electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD) image. This image can be used to determine the crystallographic structure of the specimen.

The use of an Everhart-Thornley detector for detection of backscattered electrons is deficient because fewer such electrons are emitted in the solid angle subtended by the detector than the number of secondary electrons forced to the detector by its high bias collection grid. The use of a dedicated backscattered electron detector above the sample in a “doughnut” type arrangement, concentric with the electron beam, greatly increases the solid angle of collection and allows for the detection of more backscattered electrons producing atomic number contrast.

Beam-injection analysis of semiconductors

The nature of the SEM’s probe, energetic electrons, makes it uniquely suited to examining the optical and electronic properties of semiconductor materials. The high-energy electrons from the SEM beam will inject charge carriers into the semiconductor. Thus, beam electrons lose energy by promoting electrons from the valence band into the conduction band, leaving behind holes.

In a direct bandgap material, recombination of these electron-hole pairs will result in cathodoluminescence; if the sample contains an internal electric field, such as is present at a p-n junction, the SEM beam injection of carriers will cause electron beam induced current (EBIC) to flow.

Cathodoluminescence and EBIC are referred to as “beam-injection” techniques, and are very powerful probes of the optoelectronic behavior of semiconductors, particularly for studying nanoscale features and defects.


Cathodoluminescence, the emission of light when atoms excited by high-energy electrons return to their ground state, is analogous to UV-induced fluorescence, and some materials such as zinc sulfide and some fluorescent dyes, exhibit both phenomena. Cathodoluminescence is most commonly experienced in everyday life as the light emission from the inner surface of the cathode ray tube in television sets and computer CRT monitors. In the SEM, CL detectors either collect all light emitted by the specimen, or can analyse the wavelengths emitted by the specimen and display an emission spectrum or an image of the distribution of cathodoluminescence the specimen in real colour.

X-ray microanalysis

X-rays, which are also produced by the interaction of electrons with the sample, may also be detected in an SEM equipped for energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy or wavelength dispersive X-ray spectroscopy.

Resolution of the SEM

The spatial resolution of the SEM depends on the size of the electron spot, which in turn depends on both the wavelength of the electrons and the magnetic electron-optical system which produces the scanning beam. The resolution is also limited by the size of the interaction volume, or the extent to which the material interacts with the electron beam. The spot size and the interaction volume both might be large compared to the distances between atoms, so the resolution of the SEM is not high enough to image individual atoms, as is possible in the shorter wavelength (i.e. higher energy) transmission electron microscope (TEM). The SEM has compensating advantages, though, including the ability to image a comparatively large area of the specimen; the ability to image bulk materials (not just thin films or foils); and the variety of analytical modes available for measuring the composition and nature of the specimen. Depending on the instrument, the resolution can fall somewhere between less than 1 nm and 20 nm. The world’s highest SEM resolution is obtained with the Hitachi S-5500. Resolution is 0.4nm at 30kV and 1.6nm at 1kV. In general, SEM images are easier to interpret than TEM images.

Environmental SEM

Main article: ESEM

Conventional SEM requires samples to be imaged under vacuum, because a gas atmosphere rapidly spreads and attenuates electron beams. Consequently, samples that produce a significant amount of vapour, e.g. wet biological samples or oil-bearing rock need to be either dried or cryogenically frozen. Processes involving phase transitions, such as the drying of adhesives or melting of alloys, liquid transport, chemical reactions, solid-air-gas systems and living organisms in general cannot be observed.

The first commercial development of the Environmental SEM (ESEM) in the late 1980s [8] [9] allowed samples to be observed in low-pressure gaseous environments (e.g. 1-50 Torr) and high relative humidity (up to 100%). This was made possible by the development of a secondary-electron detector [10] [11] capable of operating in the presence of water vapour and by the use of pressure-limiting apertures with differential pumping in the path of the electron beam to separate the vacuum regions around the gun and lenses from the sample chamber.

The first commercial ESEMs were produced by the ElectroScan Corporation in USA in 1988 [12]. ElectroScan were later taken over by Philips (now FEI Company) in 1996 [13].

ESEM is especially useful for non-metallic and biological materials because coating with carbon or gold is unnecessary. Uncoated Plastics and Elastomers can be routinely examined, as can uncoated biological samples. Coating can be difficult to reverse, may conceal small features on the surface of the sample may be concealed and may reduce the value of the results obtained. X-ray analysis is difficult with a coating of a heavy metal, so carbon coatings are routinely used in conventional SEMs, but ESEM makes it possible to perform X-ray microanalysis on uncoated non-conductive specimens. ESEM may be the preferred for electron microscopy of unique samples from criminal or civil actions, where forensic analysis may need to be repeated by several different experts.

See also

Wikibooks has a book on the topic of
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Scanning electron microscopic images
  • List of surface analysis methods
  • Forensic science
  • Forensic engineering
  • Transmission electron microscopy (TEM)


Defect Review – Scanning Electron Microscopy
Critical Dimension Measurement – Scanning Electron Microscopy


  • Notes on the SEM Notes covering all aspects of the SEM


  • Microscopy History links from the University of Alabama Department of Biological Sciences
  • The Early History and Development of SEM from Cambridge University Engineering Department
  • Milestones in the History of Electron Microscopy from the Swiss Federal Institute of Zürich
  • Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope (ESEM) history


See our image gallery on this topic at:
Scanning electron microscopic images
  • Tescan Image Gallery Some great SEM images of various specimens, as well as analytical results
  • Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc. Large collection of SEM images – mostly false colour
  • Jeol SEM Images Twelve SEM images of various specimens
  • SEM Lab at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; includes a gallery of images
  • Rippel Electron Microscope Facility Many dozens of (mostly biological) SEM images from Dartmouth College.

Gallery of SEM images

The following are examples of images taken using a scanning electron microscope.

This text comes from Wikipedia. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikipedia.

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