FAQs – SEM Tips & Tricks

//FAQs – SEM Tips & Tricks
FAQs – SEM Tips & Tricks2017-08-02T13:22:38-08:00

Here you can find Answers to Frequently Asked Questions and some helpful tips and tricks …

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do you recommend getting consumable supplies?2017-08-02T13:57:37-08:00

Our SEM is delivered with a starter kit that includes most of the basic supplies you will need.  However, each application has its own specific requirements to achieve the most optimal sample preparation and presentation of the sample with the SEM.  That said, we are happy to recommend supplies to you that would be useful for your application based on our extensive background in sample prep.  We feel like the best range for SEM supplies is available from Rave Scientific.  We have listed a number of Electron Microscopy supply providers on our LINKS page.

How do Tungsten filaments compare to Phenom’s CeB6 source?2017-10-01T12:28:15-08:00

How do Tungsten filaments compare to Phenom’s CeB6 source?

This question requires a bit of explanation as there is not a simple answer.   This article is provided as clarification in response to the following Blog post: http://blog.phenom-world.com/sem-electron-source-ceb6-right-choice.

Tungsten Cathode / Filament

typical Tungsten Cathode

Lab6 / CeB6 Cathode / Filament

typical LaB6 or CeB6 Cathode

Most Tabletop or Desktop SEM’s use a standard Tungsten filament that is readily available from several microscopy consumable suppliers such as Rave Scientific, as well as others listed on our Links page.  A good explanation of Tungsten and CeB6 cathodes can be found at EMS Diasum’s website.  CeB6 (cerium hexaboride) filaments usually produce a stronger beam of electrons compared to Tungsten filaments.  This does make the CeB6 source an attractive feature at first glance but it does come with a cost and other compromises as explained below.

Tungsten filaments are simple to replace with our pre-centered design having a semi-disposable Wehnelt and typically last from 100-200 “beam on” hours. They are easy to replace, only requiring 10 minutes most often to be back up and running in optimum condition. The design of modern Tabletop SEMs using a Tungsten filament also make it possible for the user to clean the column liner tube and replace condenser apertures if needed.  This keeps the annual maintenance cost of owning such a system very low.  So low in fact that service contracts or annual service maintenance agreements are typically not required or even suggested to owners of this type of SEM.  This is one of the more attractive features of Tungsten filament Tabletop SEMs compared to a typical full-size SEM or the Phenom CeB6 based SEM that are often  recommended to be maintained with an annual service contract resulting in an ongoing annual cost.

One claim in the above referenced blog needing clarification is regarding the end-of-life or failure of the Tungsten filament.  The blog implies that upon tungsten filament failure or “burn out”, that particles are produced causing contamination and potential harmful affects to other components. Based on the first-hand knowledge of dozens of experienced owners of tungsten filament SEM’s, some for as long as 40 years  – none report having concerns about filament burn-out other than the occasional inconvenience.  No one reports any excessive cleaning required nor foresee potential of damage to the TMP from particles that are not created upon failure.  Filaments are not “replaced weekly” but rather once they fail or using a “Filament Timer” as built into most software and replacing once they reach a set number of hours use or when current/voltage strays from normal levels.

A CeB6 (cerium hexaboride) filament produces a strong beam of electrons for exciting the sample and as a result, sometimes produce a brighter image or one with a broader range of gray-scale as compared to most Tabletop SEMs with a Tungsten filament.  However, the SEC Tabletop SEM is not like “most” Tungsten filament Tabletop SEMs.  The SEC systems also provide the user with flexible control over the excitation beam with a variable spot size, wider range of acceleration voltages, and more.  This allows the SNE-3200 and SNE-4500 SEMs to produce nice bright images even at energies as low as 1 or 5 kV.  In fact, the 1 kV beam and variable spot size allows the SEC system to produce beautiful images in high vacuum with an SE detector of non-conductive, uncoated biological samples.

The Phenom CeB6 replacement cathode or filament is typically only available through Phenom’s distributors and replaced by a factory trained service tech.  Due to the high vacuum requirement of a CeB6 filament like the Phenom, the SEM is usually required to be shipped back to a qualified distributor or the manufacturer for source replacement rather than on-site.  Fortunately, the CeB6 source lasts around 1500 hours and since the cost is around $900 each for the filament alone, its longer life makes it feasible economically, although quite a bit more expensive in operating cost than Tungsten filament systems.

One harder to measure cost of using a CeB6 source such as in the Phenom, is that it requires a higher vacuum level.  As such, the Phenom’s column design for this high vacuum required by CeB6 means the system must be kept powered on full time to prevent loss of vacuum. Should vacuum be lost in the column, it can take about 12 hours or more for the high vacuum to once again be achieved.  Thus, there is a cost to pay in regards to continuous electrical power requirements or lost time if powered down.  Likewise, the Turbo Molecular Pump (TMP) and roughing pump are subjected to many more hours use during the idle time the SEM is not being but still maintaining vacuum, instead of being idle when not used for imaging.  TMP’s spin at RPM’s as high as 60,000 and are one of the more costly components to replace in an SEM.

Due to the high vacuum nature and stringent cleanliness required to maintain a high vacuum like that of the Phenom CeB6 design, the CeB6 source is not recommended to be replaced by the user.  Similarly, the column cannot be cleaned by the user either.  As such, Phenom typically advises customers to plan for an annual source replacement depending on usage and since the system must be returned to the factory or authorized distributor, they should also plan to be without the SEM for approximately 1-2 weeks.  This is evidenced by the suppliers recommending an ANNUAL SERVICE CONTRACT for maintaining the Phenom, possibly due to its critical vacuum requirements.  This should be a red flag to the prospective buyer.  No other tabletop SEM using Tungsten filament sources suggest much less recommend an annual service contract.  Not suffering that on-going costs is a primary attraction for Tabletop SEM.

Filament Operating Cost

Prospective buyers of a Tabletop SEM are advised to weigh out these costs and compromises for their particular situation.  The above referenced blog claims the “cost per image” is about the same for both type sources but this is far from correct.  We have calculated the operating cost of the filament replacement only to be approximately $1.25 per hour for our Tungsten filaments and around $4 per hour for the CeB6 filament based on reported cost of replacement and lifetime expectations.  The reader should make their own determinations of this on-going cost.  Not factored into the cost of ownership are: shipping the system in for source replacement, cost of lost usage during replacement, extra power cost to maintain vacuum, and possibly more frequent TMP replacement cost which could be very significant.

The Tungsten filament operating cost can also be lowered even further if users wish to clean their Wehnelts and center the new filaments themselves rather than buying all new pre-centered filaments.  Some users just keep an extra Wehnelt or two on hand with filament already installed and centered for when the next replacement is required and then clean the prior Wehnelt as time permits. We are also rolling out an exchange program since the Wehnelt is re-usable and is actually the major cost of a new filament/Wehnelt combination.

Questions to Ask when Considering a CeB6 based Desktop SEM like the Phenom system:

  1. What is the cost to replace the CeB6 source?
  2. Where is the CeB6 source replaced and how long does that take?  What is the cost and how is shipping of the system facilitated?
  3. As the tip of the CeB6 source erodes, how can it be adjusted to an optimal position in the Wehnelt to reduce image degradation?
  4. What is the power draw of the SEM when left powered on 24/7 to maintain the column vacuum?
  5. Should a particle from the sample dislodge and travel into the Phenom column causing imaging problems, how is the columned cleaned?
  6. What is the cost of an annual service or maintenance contract?
  7. Ask for evidence on the up-time of past customers systems and the rate of failures.

Consider for a moment that every single manufacturer of Scanning Electron Microscopes, both full-size and tabletop or desktop (with the exception of Phenom) offer thermonic Tungsten filament electron beam sources.  One must conclude there are good reasons otherwise another SEM manufacturer would be offering something similar.  Likewise, the full size SEM manufacturers also offer systems using LaB6 (or CeB6) based sources as well as Field Emission sources – usually at much greater cost.  The reader is encouraged to weigh all the costs of ownership prior to making a decision based on the type of source in a Tabletop SEM.

Magnification or Resolution – which is more important?2017-08-02T13:50:07-08:00

Magnification versus Resolution – which is more important?

We often get asked about magnification in Tabletop SEM.  Magnification is a relative term since the actual magnified size of an image depends on how it is displayed.  This is why the micrographs captured by Scanning Electron Microscopes almost always contain a “scale bar” so that no matter how the image is displayed, one could calculate the true magnification for that instance.

Unlike light or optical microscopy where the resolution is controlled by the wavelength of light and the quality of the optical lenses, in Electron Microscopy the resolution depends on a number of factors.  Suffice to say though, an electron microscope cannot resolve a feature less than its ultimate resolution.  Typically, resolution of the electron microscope is directly proportional to its cost.  To see smaller and smaller objects, one has to spend more, often exponentially more.

Many within the microscopy industry maintain that it is misleading to the viewer to have the magnification printed on the saved image (ie, 1000X for instance) since if that small captured image is then projected onto a large screen during a presentation, the actual magnification is quite a bit larger — however, there is still no more detail to be seen.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just continue to magnify an image until we could see all those little electrons orbiting around the nucleus? Unfortunately that simply isn’t the case.

Manufacturers often list magnification capability in their literature.  Ask if that is that the “live” magnification of a real-time image or is it the theoretical magnification of a captured image displayed on a particular device?

Take a theoretical example – with a micrograph having a 2 micron FOV (field of view) and captured at 5120 x 3840 pixels and then displayed on a 50″ monitor that typically has around 90-100 pixel per inch density.  If displayed pixel per pixel such that their is no pixelation, the magnification would be over 500,000X — but you cannot create more detail, those electrons and protons still can’t actually be seen!!

What is more important for electron microscopes than their claimed magnification, is their Resolution and what is called the onset of “hollow magnification” where no further detail is revealed by increased magnification.

Therefore, when evaluating SEM’s you are wise to take specifications regarding magnification with some skepticism.  Pay close attention to RESOLUTION and how well the tool allows you to reach magnification to observe the limits of resolution.  This is best evaluated with resolution standards and monitor samples like Gold Islands or Tin Spheres on Carbon resolution standard samples from suppliers such as those on our RESOURCE LINKS page or follow the direct links below.   These resolution standards are typically under $200 and quite useful when considering an expensive purchase like an SEM.  Real-world samples might not possess details fine enough to make this determination or they might require special preparation in order for them to be revealed.

Resolution Standards:

Gold Islands – Gold on Carbon Resolution Standards

Tin Spheres on Carbon Resolution Standards


Magnification and Resolution at Science Learning.

How long does sample exchange require compared to the Phenom SEM?2017-09-23T12:41:47-08:00

How long does sample exchange require compared to the Phenom SEM?

Our SEM system’s have a medium size chamber that reaches its vacuum level in roughly 2.5 to 3 minutes.  It can be opened in about 30 seconds from pressing “exchange” on the SEM’s front panel.

The Phenom SEM is able to exchange samples in around 30 seconds which on the surface, sounds attractive but this ability comes with a price.  The Phenom SEM utilizes a unique design compared to standard SEM design by using both a column isolation valve to maintain column vacuum full-time, and a special sample holder design that is unlike any other SEM marketed.

As with many feature comparisons, there are caveats to consider.  First, the SEC systems allow loading multiple samples at once while the Phenom Pro/ProX typically works with one sample at a time.  So, while a single sample load time is faster with the Phenom, loading multiple samples would have the opposite result in total time required to images 4 or more samples for instance.  Note that the Phenom Pro XL has ability to load multiple samples so this argument would not apply in that situation.

The Phenom Pro’s unique sample carriers are quite innovative but they also mean the maximum sample size is quite limited compared to other SEM’s with the exception of the Phenom XL which has a larger chamber.  This smaller space for samples also means it is easier (faster) to evacuate that small chamber.

The CeB6 source of the Phenom requires a higher vacuum level and maintains the column at vacuum 24/7 which contributes to its ability of fast sample exchange times.  See our other FAQ on Tungsten vs CeB6 sources for more info.  Due to the high vacuum nature of the Phenom column, the column cannot be easily cleaned by the user.  Particles from samples entering the column can be a concern for that reason and as such, Phenom suggests blowing and gentle tapping to remove loose particles on an SEM stub holding a powder or particle sample.  Note though that this would then change the population statistics of a sample to be analyzed.

If your SEM workflow requires fast sample analysis, we encourage you to explain that process to your supplier.  There are often alternatives and other factors to consider.  If fast analysis is truly required, one possible solution is the use of a sample exchange device which can be even faster than Phenom’s exchange time.  These are commonly used in large chamber SEMs.  Once such device is offered by Quroum Technologies (LINK).  This device allows keeping the SEM chamber at vacuum and utilizes and external sample exchange chamber.  One advantage to this method is that the sample can be transported under an inert gas blanket at all times if necessary.  This type of sample exchange system can be adapted to the SEC SEM systems.

What type mounts does your SEM require?2017-08-02T13:32:54-08:00

Our SEM comes with a set of sample mounts that use a 9.5mm diameter connection to the sample stage.  However, we routinely convert the base stage or provide parts so that you can utilize your favorite type of sample mount such as Pin Stubs, Hitachi M4 style mounts or Jeol style cylinder mounts.  Our staff has indepth experience with adapting many types of mounting systems for SEM so please ask for our advice.

What version software does your SEM require?2017-08-02T13:33:20-08:00

Our SEM’s can run on either Windows 7 or Windows 10