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Scanning Electron Microscopy

Introduction to Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is an imaging technique with significance across multiple industries. It employs a beam of electrons to capture high-resolution surface images. SEM plays a pivotal role in various fields ranging from materials science and biology to electronics and forensics. Its ability to provide detailed insights into the composition and morphology of samples makes it an indispensable tool for research, quality control and technological innovation in diverse sectors.

How does SEM work?

SEM functions by using a focussed beam of electrons to investigate the sample surface through a series of steps:

  • Electron beam generation
  • Beam focussing
  • Sample scanning
  • Electron-sample interaction
  • Signal detection
  • Image formation

What industries can use SEM?

Scanning electron microscopy when used correctly is a versatile and indispensable tool with a wide range of applications across industries.

SEM in biological sciences applications

Microbial analysis:

SEM allows microbiologists to visualise and study microorganisms with exception detail. This can provide insight into microbial morphology and interactions, aiding in understanding behaviour and adaptations.

Cellular and tissue imaging:

This technique can also provide intricate views of biological specimens, allowing for examination of cellular morphology and interactions at the nanoscale. This has contributed significantly to several fields, including regenerative medicine, drug development, and medical diagnostics.

SEM in electronics applications

Microchip development:

microchip development, SEM provides precise examination and analysis of microchip components. This aids in material characterisation and defect detection. In this way, the technique supports manufacture optimisation and quality control.

Quality control:

By inspecting semiconductors used in electronics for defects, SEM can conduct dimensional and material analysis. This ensures process control and identifies failure modes of the components, allowing for reliability testing to maintain electrical standards.

SEM in materials science applications

Material characterisation

This technique facilitates the study of the properties, composition, and microstructure of materials used across industries such as aerospace, energy, and chemistry. By harnessing SEM’s capabilities, scientists can gain insights into material behaviour and aid in material development.

Nanomaterials research:

SE microscopy offers invaluable insights into nanotubes and fibres, enabling exploration of their characteristics and driving innovation in nanotechnology.

SEM in geology and earth science applications

Mineral and rock analysis:

Its capabilities extend to identification of compositional differences in soil and rock samples while also assessing the impact weathering processes. This allows for critical insight into geological formations and Earth history.

Archaeological studies:

SEM also proves invaluable for artefact identification and analysis in archaeological studies. By scrutinising surface features and composition, it can provide enrich knowledge of human history and cultural heritage.

SEM in pharmaceutical and life sciences applications

Mineral and rock analysis:

Drug development: This advanced technique also ensures drug manufacturing integrity by providing detailed examination and analysis. By verifying drug formulation consistency, detecting irregularities, and contributing to the quality of pharmaceutical products, it can be used to support drug safety standards.

Vaccine research:

Virologists rely on SEM to visualise vaccine structures and analyse their components and interactions with the immune system. This contributes massively to vaccine development and healthcare advancement.

SEM in petrochemical applications

Oil and gas

Alongside total organic carbon analysers, SEM is used to assess the quality and composition of water used in processing, cooling, and wastewater treatment within petrochemical operations. This maintains water quality standards and ensures industrial processes run smoothly while also working as an environmental safeguard.

SEM in food and beverage applications

Quality control

Here, SEM is used for maintaining product quality and safety standards. By analysing the food product and packaging, SEM ensures compliance with rigorous quality control measures.

SEM for quality control applications

The precise microscopic quality control capabilities of SEM align with the evolving requirements of industry 4.0. Advanced technologies and automation demand meticulous inspection and assurance of product integrity which can be easily provided via SEM.

Selecting the right SEM instrument

Selecting the most suitable SEM instrument is a critical decision for your research or analysis needs. Begin by defining the analytical needs, including resolution and imaging capabilities. Sci Med offers the SNE-ALPHA, boasting a 5nm resolution for high-precision imaging. Considerations of size must be considered; a small laboratory space might be incapable of fitting larger SEM models. The SNE-ALPHA instead offers a compact design which is 40 percent smaller than previous models, and provides an enhanced, user-friendly interface for access to results. There are also deliberations to be had about automation of the device. The SNE SEM includes auto-gun-align and auto focus for image capture, as well as supporting large area scans and optional backscattered electron imaging. Similarly, analysis must also be considered. If 3D analysis is essential, the SNE-AALPHA offers 3d rendering functions for surface roughness inspection. With these considerations in mind, an informed choice for an SEM instrument can be explored.
Smart Tabletop SEM SNE-ALPHA

How to interpret SEM results

To interpret SEM results, the generated images must be analysed, identifying surface details, morphology and features. During this analysis, consider the scale for size context. The sample’s composition can then be determined using energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) data, and any unique features or patterns identified. Furthermore, evaluate the surface topography, particle size and distribution, taking defects and anomalies into account. If necessary, quantitative measurements using the SEM software can be performed, allowing for comparison of results to research objectives and complementary secondary techniques can be performed.

What to do next?

To find out more about SciMed’s scanning electron microscopes, visit the product page for the SNE-ALPHA, or visit the enquiry page to discuss with a member of the team an instrument more tailored to a particular application

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