Scanning Electron Microscopy

Phenom SEM imagesA scanning electron microscope (SEM) scans a focused electron beam over a surface to create an image. The electrons in the beam interact with the sample, producing various signals that can be used to obtain information about the surface topography and composition.

Why use electrons instead of light in a microscope?

Given sufficient light, the human eye can distinguish two points 0.2 mm apart, without the aid of any additional lenses. This distance is called the resolving power or resolution of the eye. A lens or an assembly of lenses (a microscope) can be used to magnify this distance and enable the eye to see points even closer together than 0.2 mm.

A modern light microscope has a maximum magnification of about 1000x. The resolving power of the microscope was not only limited by the number and quality of the lenses but also by the wavelength of the light used for illumination. White light has wavelengths from 400 to 700 nanometers (nm). The average wavelength is 550 nm which results in a theoretical limit of resolution (not visibility) of the light microscope in white light of about 200 – 250 nm. The figure below shows two points at the limits of detection and the two individual spots can still be distinguished. The right image shows the two points so close together that the central spots overlap.

Scanning_Electron_Microscope_schematic of resolution.jpg
Two points showing the limits of detection

The electron microscope was developed when the wavelength became the limiting factor in light microscopes. Electrons have much shorter wavelengths, enabling better resolution.

Compare an Optical Microscope vs a Scanning Electron Microscope

As dimensions are shrinking for materials and devices, many structures can no longer be characterized by light microscopy.


Optical microscope image of nanofibers

For example, to determine the integrity of a nanofiber layer for filtration, as shown here, electron microscopy is required to characterize the sample.


Scanning electron microscope image at 4000x magnification of same nanofibers

Learn more about commercial Scanning Electron Microscopes that are easy to use, affordable, and low maintenance.

How an SEM Works
How an SEM Works

Basic principles of SEM

Scanning Electron Microscopes
Scanning Electron Microscopes

High performing tabletop SEMs that are fast, intuitive to use and low maintenance with no infrastructure required.

Sample-Electron Interaction
Sample-Electron Interaction

Types of electrons generated and detected in an SEM

SEM Components
SEM Components

Electron source, lenses, detectors and more for an SEM