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Seeing Is Believing – How Benchtop SEMs Are Changing the Imaging Landscape

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Imaging techniques have been instrumental in giving insights into the world beyond the naked eye. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which produces images of a sample by scanning the surface with a focused beam of electrons, is one such technique. Traditional SEM instruments have provided us with unprecedented details of every surface you can think of, from whole insects to crystals and bacteria, but can be complex to use, requiring specialist knowledge, and also require a large dedicated space. The dawn and advancement of compact and user-friendly benchtop SEMs however is changing this picture.

We spoke to Donna Guarrera, Assistant Division Director for SM at Jeol, about the Neoscope benchtop SEM and how it is enabling accessibility to growing levels and quality of information, simultaneously providing imaging and elemental analysis, to more and more users.

Karen Steward (KS): What makes NeoScope stand apart from other SEM systems available?

Donna Guarrera (DG):
This is our 4th generation benchtop SEM and we’ve incorporated advanced technology and functions making it even more accessible to users at any skill level. A few features that we believe set us apart are:

Zeromag. Our system can be equipped with a color camera for sample navigation. This in itself may not be unique to JEOL but with our system, the image is collected automatically as the sample is placed in the SEM chamber and requires no calibration by the operator. We call this mode of navigation, Zeromag. With Zeromag, there is a seamless transition from the color optical image to the live SEM image as the operator zooms in for a closer look. The color image and SEM images collected are linked and can be reported for an instant map of analysis locations. Furthermore, the analysis locations and instrument conditions can be recalled if the operator wants to re-examine their samples. One software platform for seamless navigation.

Live analysis!
Our system can be equipped with a fully embedded and integrated JEOL EDS (Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectrometer) system. Not only are the EDS functions embedded in the SEM software interface, the EDS spectrum is displayed in real time during image observation. The operator now has a clear understanding of the elemental composition instantly when searching for the area of interest. Furthermore, our system includes not only a live spectrum view but also the ability to observe hyperspectral maps live, in real time. This gives insight into the spatial distribution of the elements present in the sample.

Live 3D imaging and mapping.
With our new multi-segmented backscatter electron detector (BSE) our NeoScope can display a 3D image and map in real time. This provides greater insight into the true structure of a material.

3D surface reconstruction of ink on paper

High and low vacuum modes. We can manage a wide variety of sample types and observe fine surface structure detail with multiple modes of observation. Most manufactures of benchtop systems are limited to low vacuum only.

KS: Can you tell us how the development of benchtop SEMs like the NeoScope are changing the field of microscopy?

Benchtop SEMs are a natural extension to optical microscopy. With SEM you can generate an image at much higher resolution and depth of focus over optical microscopy with the added benefit of capturing signals such as X-rays which give insight into the chemical (elemental) composition of the samples being studied. The simplicity of benchtop systems makes this technology accessible to anyone. You do not need to be a specialist to operate these instruments.

Benchtop system are compact, easy to use and come at an attractive price point. With that, this market is growing rapidly. They fit a niche for industry (QC, manufacturing, R&D) to academia.

It is not just a microscopy lab but any lab can work with a benchtop SEM.

KS: What sort of training would a user require to use the NeoScope effectively?

One of the key strengths of our NeoScope is that very little training is required. The software guides the operator step-by-step from sample introduction to automatic image generation based on sample type and analysis purpose.

JEOL enhances the user experience by offering an applications training course to ground the operator in the theory behind SEM and EDS and how to optimize for specific applications for those who want to learn more.

KS: Are there any sample types that are particularly challenging in their analysis? How are these challenges being addressed?

Beam sensitive and non-conductive samples have always been a challenge with any SEM imaging and analysis. The improvements in low vacuum SEM design and development of high sensitivity detectors are a couple of areas which have helped manage handling these sample types. A new backscatter electron detector (BSE) was built-into the Neoscope design which allows amazing imaging at low voltages for a clear image of the most challenging of samples.

KS: What for you are some of the most exciting applications that NeoScope is being implemented in?

The exciting part is the range of places where the NeoScope is sold. For instance, we have a NeoScope installed at a High School where it is awesome to see an introduction of this technology to such a young age group. The cross section of industries that use the NeoScope is also amazing from pharma, textile, food, semiconductor, ceramics and medical device.

KS: Can you foresee a time when more traditional and complex SEM systems may be redundant, or will they always have a place?

Traditional SEMs and FE SEMs will always have a place. Benchtops systems offer a lot in terms of resolution and capability, but their simplicity of operation is due in part to limited choices in parameters that can be adjusted. Traditional SEMs offer even higher resolution compared with benchtop for observing the smallest of structures. In addition, the larger chambers with the capability of adding many types of detectors allow for greater flexibility. Virtually a nano lab inside an SEM.

Benchtop system can take some of the workload off the laboratories with traditional SEMs but will never be a true replacement.

Donna Guarrera was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.