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What is Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) uses a focused beam of high-energy electrons to generate a variety of signals at the surface of solid specimens. The signals that derive from electron-sample interactions reveal information about the sample including external morphology (texture), chemical composition, and crystalline structure and orientation of materials making up the sample. In most applications, data are collected over a selected area of the surface of the sample, and a 2-dimensional image is generated that displays spatial variations in these properties. Areas ranging from approximately 1 cm to 5 microns in width can be imaged in a scanning mode using conventional SEM techniques (magnification ranging from 20X to approximately 30,000X, spatial resolution of 50 to 100 nm). The SEM is also capable of performing analyses of selected point locations on the sample; this approach is especially useful in qualitatively or semi-quantitatively determining chemical compositions (using EDS), crystalline structure, and crystal orientations (using EBSD). The design and function of the SEM is very similar to the EPMA and considerable overlap in capabilities exists between the two instruments.

Fundamental Principles of Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

Accelerated electrons in an SEM carry significant amounts of kinetic energy, and this energy is dissipated as a variety of signals produced by electron-sample interactions when the incident electrons are decelerated in the solid sample. These signals include secondary electrons (that produce SEM images), backscattered electrons (BSE), diffracted backscattered electrons (EBSD that are used to determine crystal structures and orientations of minerals), photons (characteristic X-rays that are used for elemental analysis and continuum X-rays), visible light (cathodoluminescence--CL), and heat. Secondary electrons and backscattered electrons are commonly used for imaging samples: secondary electrons are most valuable for showing morphology and topography on samples and backscattered electrons are most valuable for illustrating contrasts in composition in multiphase samples (i.e. for rapid phase discrimination). X-ray generation is produced by inelastic collisions of the incident electrons with electrons in discrete orbitals (shells) of atoms in the sample. As the excited electrons return to lower energy states, they yield X-rays that are of a particular wavelength (that is related to the difference in energy levels of electrons in different shells for a given element). Thus, characteristic X-rays are produced for each element in a mineral that is "excited" by the electron beam. SEM analysis is considered to be "non-destructive"; that is, x-rays generated by electron interactions do not lead to volume loss of the sample, so it is possible to analyze the same materials repeatedly.

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) Instrumentation - How Does It Work?

Essential components of all SEMs include the following:

  1. Electron Source "Gun"
  2. Electron Lenses
  3. Sample Stage
  4. Detectors for all signals of interest
  5. Display / Data output devices
  6. Infrastructure Requirements:
  • Power Supply
  • Vacuum System
  • Cooling system
  • Vibration-free floor
  • Room free of ambient magnetic and electric fields
Argast, Anne and Tennis, Clarence F., III, 2004, A web resource for the study of alkali feldspars and perthitic textures using light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, Journal of Geoscience Education 52, no. 3, p. 213-217
Beane, Rachel, 2004, Using the Scanning Electron Microscope for Discovery Based Learning in Undergraduate Courses, Journal of Geoscience Education, vol 52 #3, p. 250-253
Moecher, David, 2004, Characterization and Identification of Mineral Unknowns: A Mineralogy Term Project, Jour. Geoscience Education, v 52 #1, p. 5-9.