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Scanning Electron Microscopy in Analysis of Surfaces


  1. Michael K. Lamvik

Published Online: 15 SEP 2006

DOI: 10.1002/9780470027318.a2512

Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry

Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry

How to Cite

Lamvik, M. K. 2006. Scanning Electron Microscopy in Analysis of Surfaces. Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry. .

Author Information

  1. MCNC, Research Triangle Park, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 SEP 2006


Microscopy is the art and science of visually observing small objects. Electrons are electrically charged subatomic particles typically responsible for the flow of electrical current. Scanning is a method of observation where the focus of attention is moved in a chosen pattern and desired information is gained by assembling observations in sequence. In a scanning electron microscope (SEM), a beam of electrons is scanned in a regular pattern over a small object, and the image of the object appears on a screen by displaying the image points in synchrony with the movements of the electron beam on the object.

A familiar example of image scanning is a television receiver, where a picture is created on a screen by rapidly scanning an electron beam across the phosphor face of the television tube. The beam striking the phosphor produces light, which is seen as a picture. The signal that modulates the electron beam in a television set is created in a television camera, which is scanned in the same way that the television screen is scanned. In a SEM, the signals come from special detectors in the microscope, not from an optical camera. Otherwise, the image display in a SEM is very similar to television. Although it is typical for SEM images to be scanned at a slower rate than are television signals, some SEMs display images at the same speed as television.

The most common signal for detection in a SEM is the secondary electron signal. Secondary electrons are low-speed electrons (having energies less than about 50 eV) that result from the interaction of the primary (i.e. beam) electrons with the sample. The secondary electrons are detected, usually by a scintillator/photomultiplier detector, and the resulting signal modulates the display screen.

Secondary electrons are popular because they provide a kind of shading that gives a three-dimensional appearance to an image, making it easy to visualize the structural relationships of parts of the sample (Figure 1).

Other signals provide information of a more analytical nature. The signal produced by backscattered electrons is directly (although not exactly proportionally) related to the atomic number of the material being struck by the primary beam. Diffracted electrons provide information about crystal spacings and orientations in the sample. Induced-current signals are particularly interesting for studying the response of active electronic components.

The resolution of a SEM image depends on the quality of the optical system that forms the electron beam, including the nature of the electron source. Most SEMs can typically resolve objects as small as 10 nm. The resolution of specialized SEMs is better than 1 nm. In contrast, the resolution of light microscopes is limited by the wavelength of light to about 500 nm.

The magnification of a SEM is not directly related to the optical system, very unlike a light microscope. The magnifying power of a SEM is related to the ratio between the size of the scan on the object compared to the size of the scan on the image display. In this way a SEM functions like a mechanical pantograph that was used, typically in older days, for copying drawings. If the arms of the pantograph were of equal length, the drawing would be copied the same size. If the arms were adjusted to different lengths, the drawing could be magnified or reduced.

The primary advantage of a SEM is that it provides familiar-looking images of surfaces with higher resolution and greater depth-of-field than an optical microscope. Although the images are typically familiar looking, the contrast mechanism in a SEM is not the same as the contrast provided by light, and an observer expecting always to interpret a SEM image the same way as a light image could easily be fooled.

As the electron beam consists of electrically charged particles, the sample for SEM observation must either be inherently electrically conducting or must be made electrically conducting to yield good images. Otherwise, electrical charge builds up on the sample, the yield of secondary electrons is changed, and the scanning beam can become erratic. Low-voltage or low-vacuum SEMs can be used to reduce the charging problem.