Electron microscope

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A modern transmission electron microscope Electron Microscope.jpg
A modern transmission electron microscope
Diagram of a transmission electron microscope Electron Microscope.png
Diagram of a transmission electron microscope
Electron microscope constructed by Ernst Ruska in 1933 Ernst Ruska Electron Microscope - Deutsches Museum - Munich-edit.jpg
Electron microscope constructed by Ernst Ruska in 1933

An electron microscope is a microscope that uses a beam of accelerated electrons as a source of illumination. As the wavelength of an electron can be up to 100,000 times shorter than that of visible light photons, electron microscopes have a higher resolving power than light microscopes and can reveal the structure of smaller objects. A scanning transmission electron microscope has achieved better than 50  pm resolution in annular dark-field imaging mode [1] and magnifications of up to about 10,000,000× whereas most light microscopes are limited by diffraction to about 200  nm resolution and useful magnifications below 2000×.


Electron microscopes use shaped magnetic fields to form electron optical lens systems that are analogous to the glass lenses of an optical light microscope.

Electron microscopes are used to investigate the ultrastructure of a wide range of biological and inorganic specimens including microorganisms, cells, large molecules, biopsy samples, metals, and crystals. Industrially, electron microscopes are often used for quality control and failure analysis. Modern electron microscopes produce electron micrographs using specialized digital cameras and frame grabbers to capture the images.


Diagram illustrating the phenomena resulting from the interaction of highly energetic electrons with matter Electron Interaction with Matter.svg
Diagram illustrating the phenomena resulting from the interaction of highly energetic electrons with matter

In 1926 Hans Busch developed the electromagnetic lens.

According to Dennis Gabor, the physicist Leó Szilárd tried in 1928 to convince him to build an electron microscope, for which he had filed a patent. [2] The first prototype electron microscope, capable of four-hundred-power magnification, was developed in 1931 by the physicist Ernst Ruska and the electrical engineer Max Knoll. [3] The apparatus was the first practical demonstration of the principles of electron microscopy. [4] In May of the same year, Reinhold Rudenberg, the scientific director of Siemens-Schuckertwerke, obtained a patent for an electron microscope. In 1932, Ernst Lubcke of Siemens & Halske built and obtained images from a prototype electron microscope, applying the concepts described in Rudenberg's patent. [5]

In the following year, 1933, Ruska built the first electron microscope that exceeded the resolution attainable with an optical (light) microscope. [4] Four years later, in 1937, Siemens financed the work of Ernst Ruska and Bodo von Borries, and employed Helmut Ruska, Ernst's brother, to develop applications for the microscope, especially with biological specimens. [4] [6] Also in 1937, Manfred von Ardenne pioneered the scanning electron microscope. [7] Siemens produced the first commercial electron microscope in 1938. [8] The first North American electron microscope was constructed in 1938, at the University of Toronto, by Eli Franklin Burton and students Cecil Hall, James Hillier, and Albert Prebus. Siemens produced a transmission electron microscope (TEM) in 1939.[ clarification needed ] [9] Although current transmission electron microscopes are capable of two million-power magnification, as scientific instruments, they remain based upon Ruska's prototype.[ citation needed ]


Transmission electron microscope (TEM)

Operating principle of a transmission electron microscope

The original form of the electron microscope, the transmission electron microscope (TEM), uses a high voltage electron beam to illuminate the specimen and create an image. The electron beam is produced by an electron gun, commonly fitted with a tungsten filament cathode as the electron source. The electron beam is accelerated by an anode typically at +100 keV (40 to 400 keV) with respect to the cathode, focused by electrostatic and electromagnetic lenses, and transmitted through the specimen that is in part transparent to electrons and in part scatters them out of the beam. When it emerges from the specimen, the electron beam carries information about the structure of the specimen that is magnified by the objective lens system of the microscope. The spatial variation in this information (the "image") may be viewed by projecting the magnified electron image onto a fluorescent viewing screen coated with a phosphor or scintillator material such as zinc sulfide. Alternatively, the image can be photographically recorded by exposing a photographic film or plate directly to the electron beam, or a high-resolution phosphor may be coupled by means of a lens optical system or a fibre optic light-guide to the sensor of a digital camera. The image detected by the digital camera may be displayed on a monitor or computer.

The resolution of TEMs is limited primarily by spherical aberration, but a new generation of hardware correctors can reduce spherical aberration to increase the resolution in high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) to below 0.5 angstrom (50 picometres), [1] enabling magnifications above 50 million times. [10] The ability of HRTEM to determine the positions of atoms within materials is useful for nano-technologies research and development. [11]

Transmission electron microscopes are often used in electron diffraction mode. The advantages of electron diffraction over X-ray crystallography are that the specimen need not be a single crystal or even a polycrystalline powder, and also that the Fourier transform reconstruction of the object's magnified structure occurs physically and thus avoids the need for solving the phase problem faced by the X-ray crystallographers after obtaining their X-ray diffraction patterns.

One major disadvantage of the transmission electron microscope is the need for extremely thin sections of the specimens, typically about 100 nanometers. Creating these thin sections for biological and materials specimens is technically very challenging. Semiconductor thin sections can be made using a focused ion beam. Biological tissue specimens are chemically fixed, dehydrated and embedded in a polymer resin to stabilize them sufficiently to allow ultrathin sectioning. Sections of biological specimens, organic polymers, and similar materials may require staining with heavy atom labels in order to achieve the required image contrast.

Serial-section electron microscopy (ssEM)

One application of TEM is serial-section electron microscopy (ssEM), for example in analyzing the connectivity in volumetric samples of brain tissue by imaging many thin sections in sequence. [12]

Scanning electron microscope (SEM)

Operating principe of a scanning electron microscope
Image of Bacillus subtilis taken with a 1960s electron microscope Bacillus subtilis image.jpg
Image of Bacillus subtilis taken with a 1960s electron microscope

The SEM produces images by probing the specimen with a focused electron beam that is scanned across a rectangular area of the specimen (raster scanning). When the electron beam interacts with the specimen, it loses energy by a variety of mechanisms. The lost energy is converted into alternative forms such as heat, emission of low-energy secondary electrons and high-energy backscattered electrons, light emission (cathodoluminescence) or X-ray emission, all of which provide signals carrying information about the properties of the specimen surface, such as its topography and composition. The image displayed by an SEM maps the varying intensity of any of these signals into the image in a position corresponding to the position of the beam on the specimen when the signal was generated. In the SEM image of an ant shown below and to the right, the image was constructed from signals produced by a secondary electron detector, the normal or conventional imaging mode in most SEMs.

Generally, the image resolution of an SEM is lower than that of a TEM. However, because the SEM images the surface of a sample rather than its interior, the electrons do not have to travel through the sample. This reduces the need for extensive sample preparation to thin the specimen to electron transparency. The SEM is able to image bulk samples that can fit on its stage and still be maneuvered, including a height less than the working distance being used, often 4 millimeters for high-resolution images. The SEM also has a great depth of field, and so can produce images that are good representations of the three-dimensional surface shape of the sample. Another advantage of SEMs comes with environmental scanning electron microscopes (ESEM) that can produce images of good quality and resolution with hydrated samples or in low, rather than high, vacuum or under chamber gases. This facilitates imaging unfixed biological samples that are unstable in the high vacuum of conventional electron microscopes.

An image of an ant in a scanning electron microscope Ant SEM.jpg
An image of an ant in a scanning electron microscope

Reflection electron microscope (REM)

In the reflection electron microscope (REM) as in the TEM, an electron beam is incident on a surface but instead of using the transmission (TEM) or secondary electrons (SEM), the reflected beam of elastically scattered electrons is detected. This technique is typically coupled with reflection high energy electron diffraction (RHEED) and reflection high-energy loss spectroscopy (RHELS).[ citation needed ] Another variation is spin-polarized low-energy electron microscopy (SPLEEM), which is used for looking at the microstructure of magnetic domains. [13]

Scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM)

The STEM rasters a focused incident probe across a specimen that (as with the TEM) has been thinned to facilitate detection of electrons scattered through the specimen. The high resolution of the TEM is thus possible in STEM. The focusing action (and aberrations) occur before the electrons hit the specimen in the STEM, but afterward in the TEM. The STEMs use of SEM-like beam rastering simplifies annular dark-field imaging, and other analytical techniques, but also means that image data is acquired in serial rather than in parallel fashion. Often TEM can be equipped with the scanning option and then it can function both as TEM and STEM.

Scanning tunneling microscopy (STM)

In STM, a conductive tip held at a voltage is brought near a surface, and a profile can be obtained based on the tunneling probability of an electron from the tip to the sample since it is a function of distance.


In their most common configurations, electron microscopes produce images with a single brightness value per pixel, with the results usually rendered in grayscale. [14] However, often these images are then colorized through the use of feature-detection software, or simply by hand-editing using a graphics editor. This may be done to clarify structure or for aesthetic effect and generally does not add new information about the specimen. [15]

In some configurations information about several specimen properties is gathered per pixel, usually by the use of multiple detectors. [16] In SEM, the attributes of topography and material contrast can be obtained by a pair of backscattered electron detectors and such attributes can be superimposed in a single color image by assigning a different primary color to each attribute. [17] Similarly, a combination of backscattered and secondary electron signals can be assigned to different colors and superimposed on a single color micrograph displaying simultaneously the properties of the specimen. [18]

Some types of detectors used in SEM have analytical capabilities, and can provide several items of data at each pixel. Examples are the Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) detectors used in elemental analysis and Cathodoluminescence microscope (CL) systems that analyse the intensity and spectrum of electron-induced luminescence in (for example) geological specimens. In SEM systems using these detectors, it is common to color code the signals and superimpose them in a single color image, so that differences in the distribution of the various components of the specimen can be seen clearly and compared. Optionally, the standard secondary electron image can be merged with the one or more compositional channels, so that the specimen's structure and composition can be compared. Such images can be made while maintaining the full integrity of the original signal, which is not modified in any way.

Sample preparation

An insect coated in gold for viewing with a scanning electron microscope Golden insect 01 Pengo.jpg
An insect coated in gold for viewing with a scanning electron microscope

Materials to be viewed under an electron microscope may require processing to produce a suitable sample. The technique required varies depending on the specimen and the analysis required:


JEOL transmission and scanning electron microscope made in the mid-1970s Jeol Transmission and scanning EM.jpg
JEOL transmission and scanning electron microscope made in the mid-1970s

Electron microscopes are expensive to build and maintain, but the capital and running costs of confocal light microscope systems now overlaps with those of basic electron microscopes. Microscopes designed to achieve high resolutions must be housed in stable buildings (sometimes underground) with special services such as magnetic field canceling systems.

The samples largely have to be viewed in vacuum, as the molecules that make up air would scatter the electrons. An exception is liquid-phase electron microscopy [30] using either a closed liquid cell or an environmental chamber, for example, in the environmental scanning electron microscope, which allows hydrated samples to be viewed in a low-pressure (up to 20  Torr or 2.7 kPa) wet environment. Various techniques for in situ electron microscopy of gaseous samples have been developed as well. [31]

Scanning electron microscopes operating in conventional high-vacuum mode usually image conductive specimens; therefore non-conductive materials require conductive coating (gold/palladium alloy, carbon, osmium, etc.). The low-voltage mode of modern microscopes makes possible the observation of non-conductive specimens without coating. Non-conductive materials can be imaged also by a variable pressure (or environmental) scanning electron microscope.

Small, stable specimens such as carbon nanotubes, diatom frustules and small mineral crystals (asbestos fibres, for example) require no special treatment before being examined in the electron microscope. Samples of hydrated materials, including almost all biological specimens have to be prepared in various ways to stabilize them, reduce their thickness (ultrathin sectioning) and increase their electron optical contrast (staining). These processes may result in artifacts , but these can usually be identified by comparing the results obtained by using radically different specimen preparation methods. Since the 1980s, analysis of cryofixed, vitrified specimens has also become increasingly used by scientists, further confirming the validity of this technique. [32] [33] [34]


See also

Related Research Articles

Microscopy technical field of using microscopes to view samples and objects that cannot be seen with the unaided eye

Microscopy is the technical field of using microscopes to view objects and areas of objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye. There are three well-known branches of microscopy: optical, electron, and scanning probe microscopy, along with the emerging field of X-ray microscopy.

Microscope Scientific instrument

A microscope is an instrument used to see objects that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Microscopy is the science of investigating small objects and structures using such an instrument. Microscopic means invisible to the eye unless aided by a microscope.

Scanning electron microscope Type of electron microscope

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning the surface with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with atoms in the sample, producing various signals that contain information about the surface topography and composition of the sample. The electron beam is scanned in a raster scan pattern, and the position of the beam is combined with the intensity of the detected signal to produce an image. In the most common SEM mode, secondary electrons emitted by atoms excited by the electron beam are detected using a secondary electron detector. The number of secondary electrons that can be detected, and thus the signal intensity, depends, among other things, on specimen topography. SEM can achieve resolution better than 1 nanometer.

Transmission electron microscopy Technique in microscopy

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is a microscopy technique in which a beam of electrons is transmitted through a specimen to form an image. The specimen is most often an ultrathin section less than 100 nm thick or a suspension on a grid. An image is formed from the interaction of the electrons with the sample as the beam is transmitted through the specimen. The image is then magnified and focused onto an imaging device, such as a fluorescent screen, a layer of photographic film, or a sensor such as a scintillator attached to a charge-coupled device.

Atomic force microscopy very high-resolution type of scanning probe microscope

Atomic force microscopy (AFM) or scanning force microscopy (SFM) is a very-high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy (SPM), with demonstrated resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit.

Cathodoluminescence microscope

A cathodoluminescence (CL) microscope combines methods from electron and regular microscopes. It is designed to study the luminescence characteristics of polished thin sections of solids irradiated by an electron beam.

Photoemission electron microscopy is a type of electron microscopy that utilizes local variations in electron emission to generate image contrast. The excitation is usually produced by ultraviolet light, synchrotron radiation or X-ray sources. PEEM measures the coefficient indirectly by collecting the emitted secondary electrons generated in the electron cascade that follows the creation of the primary core hole in the absorption process. PEEM is a surface sensitive technique because the emitted electrons originate from a shallow layer. In physics, this technique is referred to as PEEM, which goes together naturally with low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), and low-energy electron microscopy (LEEM). In biology, it is called photoelectron microscopy (PEM), which fits with photoelectron spectroscopy (PES), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM).

Confocal microscopy optical imaging technique for increasing optical resolution and contrast of a micrograph by means of using a spatial pinhole to block out-of-focus light in image formation

Confocal microscopy, most frequently confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) or laser confocal scanning microscopy (LCSM), is an optical imaging technique for increasing optical resolution and contrast of a micrograph by means of using a spatial pinhole to block out-of-focus light in image formation. Capturing multiple two-dimensional images at different depths in a sample enables the reconstruction of three-dimensional structures within an object. This technique is used extensively in the scientific and industrial communities and typical applications are in life sciences, semiconductor inspection and materials science.

Scanning transmission electron microscopy type of transmission electron microscope

A scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) is a type of transmission electron microscope (TEM). Pronunciation is [stɛm] or [ɛsti:i:ɛm]. As with a conventional transmission electron microscope (CTEM), images are formed by electrons passing through a sufficiently thin specimen. However, unlike CTEM, in STEM the electron beam is focused to a fine spot which is then scanned over the sample in a raster illumination system constructed so that the sample is illuminated at each point with the beam parallel to the optical axis. The rastering of the beam across the sample makes STEM suitable for analytical techniques such as Z-contrast annular dark-field imaging, and spectroscopic mapping by energy dispersive X-ray (EDX) spectroscopy, or electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS). These signals can be obtained simultaneously, allowing direct correlation of images and spectroscopic data.

Transmission electron cryomicroscopy

Transmission electron cryomicroscopy (CryoTEM), commonly known as cryo-EM, is a form of cryogenic electron microscopy, more specifically a type of transmission electron microscopy (TEM) where the sample is studied at cryogenic temperatures. Cryo-EM is gaining popularity in structural biology.

Focused ion beam device

Focused ion beam, also known as FIB, is a technique used particularly in the semiconductor industry, materials science and increasingly in the biological field for site-specific analysis, deposition, and ablation of materials. A FIB setup is a scientific instrument that resembles a scanning electron microscope (SEM). However, while the SEM uses a focused beam of electrons to image the sample in the chamber, a FIB setup uses a focused beam of ions instead. FIB can also be incorporated in a system with both electron and ion beam columns, allowing the same feature to be investigated using either of the beams. FIB should not be confused with using a beam of focused ions for direct write lithography. These are generally quite different systems where the material is modified by other mechanisms.

Electron cryotomography

Electron cryotomography (CryoET) is an imaging technique used to produce high-resolution (~1-4 nm) three-dimensional views of samples, typically biological macromolecules and cells. CryoET is a specialized application of transmission electron cryomicroscopy (CryoTEM) in which samples are imaged as they are tilted, resulting in a series of 2D images that can be combined to produce a 3D reconstruction, similar to a CT scan of the human body. In contrast to other electron tomography techniques, samples are immobilized in non-crystalline ("vitreous") ice and imaged under cryogenic conditions, allowing them to be imaged without dehydration or chemical fixation, which could otherwise disrupt or distort biological structures.

Environmental scanning electron microscope A scanning electron microscope with a gaseous environment in the specimen chamber

The environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) is a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that allows for the option of collecting electron micrographs of specimens that are wet, uncoated, or both by allowing for a gaseous environment in the specimen chamber. Although there were earlier successes at viewing wet specimens in internal chambers in modified SEMs, the ESEM with its specialized electron detectors and its differential pumping systems, to allow for the transfer of the electron beam from the high vacuums in the gun area to the high pressures attainable in its specimen chamber, make it a complete and unique instrument designed for the purpose of imaging specimens in their natural state. The instrument was designed originally by Gerasimos Danilatos while working at the University of New South Wales.


Immunolabeling is a biochemical process that enables the detection and localization of an antigen to a particular site within a cell, tissue, or organ. Antigens are organic molecules, usually proteins, capable of binding to an antibody. These antigens can be visualized using a combination of antigen-specific antibody as well as a means of detection, called a tag, that is covalently linked to the antibody. If the immunolabeling process is meant to reveal information about a cell or its substructures, the process is called immunocytochemistry. Immunolabeling of larger structures is called immunohistochemistry.

Scanning confocal electron microscopy (SCEM) is an electron microscopy technique analogous to scanning confocal optical microscopy (SCOM). In this technique, the studied sample is illuminated by a focussed electron beam, as in other scanning microscopy techniques, such as scanning transmission electron microscopy or scanning electron microscopy. However, in SCEM, the collection optics is arranged symmetrically to the illumination optics to gather only the electrons that pass the beam focus. This results in superior depth resolution of the imaging. The technique is relatively new and is being actively developed.

Raman microscope

The Raman microscope is a laser-based microscopic device used to perform Raman spectroscopy. The term MOLE is used to refer to the Raman-based microprobe. The technique used is named after C. V. Raman who discovered the scattering properties in liquids.

Low-voltage electron microscope (LVEM) is an electron microscope which operates at accelerating voltages of a few kiloelectronvolts or less. Traditional electron microscopes use accelerating voltages in the range of 10-1000 keV.

Serial block-face scanning electron microscopy is a method to generate high resolution three-dimensional images from small samples. The technique was developed for brain tissue, but it is widely applicable for any biological samples. A serial block-face scanning electron microscope consists of an ultramicrotome mounted inside the vacuum chamber of a scanning electron microscope. Samples are prepared by methods similar to that in transmission electron microscopy (TEM), typically by fixing the sample with aldehyde, staining with heavy metals such as osmium and uranium then embedding in an epoxy resin. The surface of the block of resin-embedded sample is imaged by detection of back-scattered electrons. Following imaging the ultramicrotome is used to cut a thin section from the face of the block. After the section is cut, the sample block is raised back to the focal plane and imaged again. This sequence of sample imaging, section cutting and block raising can acquire many thousands of images in perfect alignment in an automated fashion. Practical serial block-face scanning electron microscopy was invented in 2004 by Winfried Denk at the Max-Planck-Institute in Heidelberg and is commercially available from Gatan Inc., Thermo Fisher Scientific (VolumeScope) and ConnectomX.

In situ electron microscopy is an investigatory technique where an electron microscope is used to watch a sample's response to a stimulus in real time. Due to the nature of the high-energy beam of electrons used to image a sample in an electron microscope, microscopists have long observed that specimens are routinely changed or damaged by the electron beam. Starting in the 1960s, and using Transmission Electron Microscopes (TEMs), scientists made deliberate attempts to modify materials while the sample was in the specimen chamber, and to capture images through time of the induced damages.

Liquid-Phase Electron Microscopy

Liquid-phase electron microscopy refers to a class of methods for imaging specimens in liquid with nanometer spatial resolution using electron microscopy. LP-EM overcomes the key limitation of electron microscopy: since the electron optics requires a high vacuum, the sample must be stable in a vacuum environment. Many types of specimens relevant to biology, materials science, chemistry, geology, and physics, however, change their properties when placed in a vacuum.


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