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Bringing Speed and Simplicity to SEM-EDS Analysis

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Whether they’re developing new products or exploring existing ones for failures, today’s labs need to analyze a high volume of samples under tight timelines. While many researchers combine scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to examine materials for defects at the micro-scale, the process is often viewed as slow and complex, usually requiring advanced knowledge to operate the equipment.

Fortunately, however, advances in SEM-EDS analysis are bringing a new level of speed and simplicity to failure analysis. We spoke to Rosy Lee, Vice President and General Manager of the materials science business unit at Thermo Fisher Scientific, about breakthroughs in SEM-EDS analysis that are changing materials science and how the company’s new microscope, the Axia ChemiSEM, is contributing to this effort.

Karen Steward (KS): Why is failure analysis/inspection critical?

Rosy Lee (RL):
Identifying product defects and/or identifying sources of contamination is an important part of the manufacturing process. The materials we use play an essential role in almost every part of our economy—from clean energy to transportation to human health—and the identification of defects is critical to ensuring their quality and safety. Whether it’s developing new materials or examining manufactured products and components for defects, failure analysis helps manufacturers pinpoint the root cause of failure—ensuring any defects are removed before the final product reaches customers. Companies, like ours, that bring products to market to aid improvements in efficiency and accuracy of this work is critical for keeping pace with global needs for materials of all stripes.

KS: Why is SEM-EDS analysis important for identifying failures?

To identify product defects, researchers often need to evaluate both the structural and chemical properties of materials down to microscopic levels. Since component failure is often a direct result of a foreign contaminant, or perhaps a compositional defect, both SEM images and EDS (compositional) analysis are important to identify the context and composition of the failure or other evidence of material fatigue accurately. SEM images enable researchers to see the structural details of a sample down to the nanometer scale, allowing for the precise characterization of microscopic defects that could otherwise not be observed. EDS adds to this information by showing the elemental makeup of these defects. Together, these two methods can give researchers the complete information they need to pinpoint the root cause of defects and make adjustments to the manufacturing process.

KS: What are some of the issues faced by today’s laboratory researchers as they perform SEM-EDS analyses?

One of the problems has been the inefficiency of the data collection process. The workflow to collect SEM-EDS analysis data has existed essentially unchanged since its inception. There have been improvements on integration, but the workflow remains overly complex, leaving the collection of valuable compositional insights to the end, rather than capitalizing on that data to help drive the user toward an answer. Not only was this process cumbersome, but it required quite a bit of training, leading many labs to limit these analyses to a small number of specially trained technicians.

Another issue has been the inability of SEMs to handle the range of samples that need to be explored easily. Many of today’s labs need to examine a wide variety of materials—from small, everyday components to large, heavy, awkwardly shaped parts. Yet most SEMs on the market aren’t equipped to handle large, heavy samples. As a result, researchers must spend time trimming these samples down to the areas of interest for them to fit within the microscope chamber. And, in some cases, they need to decrease the mass of the sample to allow the SEM stage to move. Not only is this inefficient, but the large amount of sample preparation can cause additional damage to the sample that could obscure the original cause of failure or obscure evidence of wear on the material, leading to inaccurate results.

KS: Thermo Fisher Scientific recently introduced a new instrument, the Axia ChemiSEM, that changes the traditional SEM-EDS workflow. How does it do this?

The Axia ChemiSEM transforms SEM-EDS analysis by making access to compositional data as easy as standard SEM imaging. Researchers no longer need to use two user interfaces to obtain images and then switch to another to get chemical data. The Axia ChemiSEM includes always-on EDS analysis, giving users instant access to quantitative elemental information directly from within the SEM image. The instrument continually collects EDS data in the background, using unique algorithms to simultaneously process the SEM and EDS signals. Researchers can turn on the EDS analysis information when they need it. They can also turn specific elements on and off, allowing them to isolate areas of interest for further exploration.

KS: How does the Axia ChemiSEM address the need for increased speed and ease of use?

Using the Axia ChemiSEM, EDS analysis is literally available with the click of a button, making SEM-EDS analysis both simple and fast. The instrument can provide actionable data up to twice as fast as conventional SEM-EDS. And new features that automate alignment and other functions remove complexity from the workflow. These are big changes for manufacturers because you no longer have to be an expert to analyze product defects using an electron microscope. Now, anyone can perform SEM-EDS analysis with minimal training. The additional benefit of the technology is that compositional data can now be used to aid navigation, giving additional insights to users that will speed up the discovery process and make users more efficient in moving to a final result faster than was previously possible.

KS: How versatile is the Axia ChemiSEM in terms of the samples it can handle, and why is this important to industrial labs?

A key breakthrough of the Axia ChemiSEM is its unprecedented versatility. The instrument comes with a large, flexible chamber that can accommodate samples traditionally considered too heavy for investigations involving electron microscopy. The flexible stage accommodates samples of up to 130 millimeters high and 10 kilograms in weight. There’s a door that opens fully for easy loading of large, awkward samples with a very fast pump down time of about two minutes. The ability to handle a wide range of sample sizes and weights means less time spent on sample prep. It’s a huge time saver that will likely lead to more productivity, and for failure analysis labs, more confidence in results.

KS: Can you give some examples for how these advances will benefit specific industries?

The Axia ChemiSEM is going to have a transformative effect across the manufacturing industry. In battery manufacturing, for example, the existence of contaminants can cause a wide range of problems—from lowering materials usage efficiency to accelerating cell degradation. Yet image acquisition times can be long when studying these contaminants using conventional EDS. With the Axia ChemiSEM, researchers can quickly identify contaminants using large-scale SEM-EDS mapping, and then move directly into detailed quantitative EDS analysis to pinpoint the distribution of each contaminant more precisely. Because SEM imaging and EDS are now integrated into a single workflow, users can more quickly and accurately pinpoint defects, dramatically improving the efficiency of their battery research.

Another example is the automotive industry. To assure the quality of their products, car manufacturers need to characterize both small components and large, heavy, awkwardly shaped parts. For example, researchers in the same lab may need to evaluate wear on ball bearings, and then also investigate the corrosion of pistons or other heavy or awkward mechanical parts. By accommodating all of these sample types, the Axia ChemiSEM will enable auto manufacturers to save time preparing samples, conduct faster SEM-EDS analyses, and improve the accuracy of their experiments.

KS: How significant is this new instrument for materials scientists overall?

We believe the Axia ChemiSEM is transformative for both academic and industrial users. Academic labs will be able to reduce user training, serve more researchers, and accelerate their research results—enhancing their research programs and their reputation for excellence. Likewise, industrial labs will be able to increase their productivity dramatically, while extending SEM-EDS analysis to more users. It all adds up to greater efficiency and accuracy, and ultimately, higher profits.

Rosy Lee was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.