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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)

What is a SEM?

SEM stands for scanning electron microscope. The SEM is a microscope that uses electrons instead of light to form an image. Since their development in the early 1950's, scanning electron microscopes have developed new areas of study in the medical and physical science communities. The SEM has allowed researchers to examine a much bigger variety of specimens.

The scanning electron microscope has many advantages over traditional microscopes. The SEM has a large depth of field, which allows more of a specimen to be in focus at one time. The SEM also has much higher resolution, so closely spaced specimens can be magnified at much higher levels. Because the SEM uses electromagnets rather than lenses, the researcher has much more control in the degree of magnification. All of these advantages, as well as the actual strikingly clear images, make the scanning electron microscope one of the most useful instruments in research today.

How does a SEM work?

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Diagram courtesy of Iowa State University SEM Homepage
The SEM is an instrument that produces a largely magnified image by using electrons instead of light to form an image. A beam of electrons is produced at the top of the microscope by an electron gun. The electron beam follows a vertical path through the microscope, which is held within a vacuum. The beam travels through electromagnetic fields and lenses, which focus the beam down toward the sample. Once the beam hits the sample, electrons and X-rays are ejected from the sample.
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Detectors collect these X-rays, backscattered electrons, and secondary electrons and convert them into a signal that is sent to a screen similar to a television screen. This produces the finalimage.

How is a sample prepared?

Because the SEM utilizes vacuum conditions and uses electrons to form an image, special preparations must be done to the sample. All water must be removed from the samples because the water would vaporize in the vacuum. All metals are conductive and require no preparation before being used. All non-metals need to be made conductive by covering the sample with a thin layer of conductive material. This is done by using a device called a "sputter coater."

The sputter coater uses an electric field and argon gas. The sample is placed in a small chamber that is at a vacuum. Argon gas and an electric field cause an electron to be removed from the argon, making the atoms positively charged. The argon ions then become attracted to a negatively charged gold foil. The argon ions knock gold atoms from the surface of the gold foil. These gold atoms fall and settle onto the surface of the sample producing a thin gold coating.