SEM working principle: the detection of backscattered electrons

By Karl Kersten - Jun 14, 2018

Backscattered electrons (BSEs) are high-energy electrons that are produced by the elastic scattering of the primary beam electrons with the atom nuclei. The yield of BSEs, that is the ratio of the number of emitted BSEs and the amount of primary beam electrons, depends on the atomic number: the higher the atomic number, or the heavier the element, the brighter the contrast. In the Phenom SEM, BSEs are detected using four-quadrant semiconductor detectors placed above the sample. In this blog, we will explain what a semiconductor detector is and how backscattered electrons are detected in a scanning electron microscope.

Emission of backscattered electrons

When the primary beam hits the surface of a sample, the incident electrons can interact with the nuclei of the atoms and their trajectories are deviated, as shown in Figure 1.

Schematic of the incident electron being backscattered by the interaction with the atom nuclei

Figure 1: Schematic of the incident electron being backscattered by the interaction with the atom nuclei.

If the conditions are just right, the incident electron can be scattered back and emerge on the surface of the sample, preserving its high energy. Typically, heavier elements, because of their bigger nuclei, can deflect incident electrons more strongly than lighter elements. Hence, heavy elements like silver, which has the atomic number Z=47, appear bright in a SEM image compared to light elements, such as silicon, that has atomic number Z=14, because more backscattered electrons are emitted from the sample surface.

An example of the different BSE contrast between silver and silicon in shown in Figure 2. This image shows a region of a solar cell, where the white area is silver and the dark area is silicon.

SEM image of a solar cell, where the white area is silver, and the dark area is silicon

Figure 2: SEM image of a solar cell, where the white area is silver, and the dark area is silicon.

But how are the backscattered electrons detected in a SEM?

Physics of a semiconductor detector 

The detection of BSEs is often carried out by solid state (or semiconductor) detectors. These consist of a doped semiconductor material (typically silicon) and are placed directly above the sample, as shown in Figure 2. The principle of semiconductor detectors is based on the generation of electron-hole pairs in a semiconductor by the incident BSE electrons. In simpler words: BSE electrons that hit the detectors excite the silicon electrons, creating an electron-hole pair.

To form an electron-hole pair in silicon, an energy of 3.6 eV is required and the number of electron-hole pairs that are generated is proportional to the energy of the incident electrons. Moreover, semiconductor detectors are only sensitive to electrons with high energy, which is the reason why they are only used for the detection of backscattered electrons.

schematic of a solid state (semiconductor) detector

Figure 3: schematic of a solid state (semiconductor) detector¹

The electronic circuit of semiconductor detectors in an SEM 

The free electrons and pairs that are generated from incident backscattered electrons can be separated before their recombination, generating a current. This current can be measured by an electronic circuit that can be schematically described as an operational amplifier with an input resistance and a feedback resistor, as shown in Figure 3.

Here the detector is shown as a charge collection current generator (Icc), in parallel with the resistance and capacitance of the depletion layer formed at the p-n junction of the doped silicon (Rd and Cd), in series with the internal bulk resistance of the semiconductor (Rs). Because the amplifier can become unstable for large values of RF/Re, an additional capacitance is added in the feedback loop to prevent the amplifier from oscillating.


Electronic circuit of a semiconductor detector system

Figure 4: Electronic circuit of a semiconductor detector system¹

Noise of semiconductor detectors in SEM 

The main sources of noise in semiconductor detectors are the shot noise of the incident BSE current and the noise of the preamplifier. Shot noise in the primary beam is caused by the fluctuations in the amount of emitted primary beam electrons. The number of primary electrons hitting the specimen in a certain amount of time is statistically distributed and follows the Poisson distribution¹. The shot noise introduced by the incident electron beam will be increased during SE and BSE emission. The noise in the preamplifier is thermal noise, called also Johnson-Nyquist noise, and it is proportional to the Boltzmann’s constant and the temperature of the resistor.


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  1. Scanning Electron Microscopy, Physics of Image Formation and Microanalysis, L. Reimer, Springer edition, 1998.



About the author

Karl Kersten is head of the Application team at Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world leader in serving science. He is passionate about the Thermo Fisher Scientific product and likes converting customer requirements into product or feature specifications so customers can achieve their goals.

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