Everything is nano these days: to improve the world of nanotechnology we make extremely fast SEM imaging and analysis accessible to everyone

By Karl Kersten - Dec 20, 2018

Imaging with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) is a powerful tool for any materials scientist, though historically, accessing the technique was an issue. SEM involved using large, expensive systems that were only available to large research institutions. Even then, access was often difficult, due to long waiting lists and because their complex operation required in-depth training.

That all changed with the introduction of the Phenom desktop SEM, which made the world of SEM available to a wide audience of researchers. Since then, we continued to improve the desktop SEM experience, pushing the limits of where the technique can be used and creating electron microscopes that have a real impact on how people work.

Read on to find out more about 10 years of Phenom desktop SEM history and our latest addition - the Thermo Scientific Phenom Pharos Field Emission Gun desktop scanning electron microscope.

A bit of history

Back when it all started in 2006 with the launch of Phenom generation, a couple of breakthrough innovations were introduced. Karl Kersten, Head of Applications at Thermo Fisher Scientific: “We were the first to introduce an integrated optical microscope within a SEM. We also offered SEM imaging that was faster than anything else that was – and still is – available. We did not want anybody to have to wait for their results.”

“We found there was a gap between light and electron microscopy and there was a real need for something to bridge that gap. Then we discovered our customers didn’t just want fast imaging; they were equally keen on having chemical information on their samples.”

“That’s why we developed the Phenom ProX, which has an integrated EDS system. And that was when we really started to become popular. Our customers could now determine a sample’s nanoscale structure, as well as its elemental composition. The Phenom ProX enabled users to be very productive as it provided rapid, integrated measurements, all controlled using just one mouse.”


2017: Phenom generation five

We’ve come a long way since then. In 2017, generation five was introduced, but still with the same goal; to have more and more people benefit from our approach. We are strongly motivated by helping scientists and analysts to achieve more in nanotechnology. To obtain results and better develop new insights, faster and more affordable. That’s why we keep investing time and effort to develop high-quality electron microscope solutions that are functionally rich, yet easy to use.

And so the Phenom desktop SEM has seen further improvements – Since 2017 we also have a secondary electron detector, the vacuum has been improved, as has the resolution. Our fifth generation of desktop SEMs is down to 8 nm resolution. If you compare this to our first generation, which was 30 nm, it’s almost 4 times better, which means users can take SEM images rapidly on an even finer scale.

Our fifth generation of SEMs also have a newly-designed objective lens with a far more analytical design; the take-off angle of the EDS system has been increased, we’ve created space to include a secondary electron detector and we’ve improved the electron source lifetime. As the Phenom desktop SEM performance becomes closer to that of a large, non-desktop SEM, it is becoming a viable option for more and more researchers who will no longer have to wait for their results.

The time it takes to image a specimen, the time it takes to get results, is tremendously short. We’re essentially providing immediate measurement. For some users, their waiting time goes from a few weeks, due to the outsourcing of the SEM measurements, to just a few minutes. If you work in quality control of, for example, pharmaceutical research, or process control in manufacturing, this huge time saving creates a lot of value.

Platform for automation

Added value comes from the SEMs versatility; it offers backscatter, secondary electron, and EDS detection. Switching between the different imaging modes is easy. Using one easy software application and a single mouse, you simply click between modes. There is no need to choose spot sizes and aperture sizes for each different image. You put the sample in at one height, and all measurements can be taken rapidly with no need to change the working distance when switching from one detector to another.

It is important to note that these benefits are not just due to being a desktop SEM model. A lot of the advantages are thanks to our specially-designed sample holders and load systems from standard to the Eucentric sample holders that are used for the Phenom XL. Another platform that opened up the world of SEM to everyone who can benefit from it and that enables users to place their SEM right by the production line, to provide results in real-time.

With the Phenom XL, we have set a new benchmark in compact desktop SEM performance, analyzing large samples of up to 100 x 100 mm thanks to an integrated chamber. We see it being used a lot in materials sciences, and earth sciences. But we also have clients in industrial manufacturing who want to look at larger areas. And it still offers the same ease-of-use and fast time-to-image features of other Phenom systems.

The system’s proprietary mechanisms ensure a rapid vent and load cycle and high throughput. A new, compact motorized stage allows users to scan the entire sample area. In addition, a single-shot optical navigation camera in the Phenom XL enables users to shift to different locations on the sample at the click of a button, all in a matter of seconds.

The desktop SEM can also be used in space-constrained areas, analyze multiple samples - and run your reliable analysis overnight. For example, take our latest introduction, AsbestoMetric, can process 100 images in approximately 40 minutes, which means in 6 hours the software can analyze 9 filters. And you can do another imaging run overnight.

Another example is our dedicated automation scripts - small automated software tools that can help SEM users work more efficiently. You can use the Phenom SEM with the Phenom programmable interface (PPI) to automate acquiring, analyzing, evaluating images and creating reports.

Automation reduces valuable operator time

For other systems, a huge time saver is replacing samples. Normally you have to vent the system, mount the new sample carefully, using gloves, pump the sample chamber, turn on the high voltage for the electron beam. That is at least seven minutes worth of waiting time. In a Phenom, you can insert the sample, (take the measurement), and remove the sample within one minute, so you are saving six minutes with every measurement. The value in this is undeniable, most certainly if you are in a production environment.

PhenomWorld_Industrial Manufacturing

Which industries benefit?

Education is an obvious example. We work closely with the University of Cambridge, who are big fans of Phenom SEMs, and the students get a lot from working with them. The simplicity and ease of use means that even first-year students can use the Phenom from the start, without zero risk of breaking it!

Other examples are industries that benefit from mobile measurements. For example, in the event of demolition work, some construction companies have installed the Phenom in a vehicle. Thanks to AsbestoMetric, they can immediately determine if there is asbestos on site and if the situation is safe, or not. Having multiple imaging and analysis capabilities in a mobile unit is of great help to many who work in the field.

Improved image resolution helps end users

Many of the applications that our instruments are used for can now be applied to other settings. For example, we have software applications like ParticleMetric and PoroMetric; if you have a higher resolution system, you can measure smaller pores and examine smaller particles. Everything is nano these days, everything is getting smaller.

Improving the resolution also means our automation programs can be used for more applications. If you look at the nanoparticles in the air, diesel pollution or air pollution, a better resolution gives you a more accurate picture.

The better resolution also makes desktop SEMs a viable option for more researchers and analysts to perform their measurements. A smaller system – if well designed, like the Phenom P-series – is also mechanically more stable. That is an important reason why we make the mobile SEM units we discussed earlier. It also enables us to position the Phenom in locations with lots of vibrations, such as high-rise buildings or even ships.

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5th generation materials analysis

The Phenom can image a huge variety of different types of sample, besides the ‘regular’ samples that any SEM can image. Because of the Phenom’s relatively small size, it can be placed into sealed environments, like a glove-box with a protective atmosphere, enabling highly-reactive specimens to be imaged, for example in battery research.

The Phenom can also be placed in isolated, dangerous environments. For example, in the nuclear industry Phenoms are placed behind 12 cm of lead glass for radioactive sample analysis. It’s especially important here that you don’t have to change the filament every few weeks!

2018: raising the bar again

In 2018, the Thermo Scientific Phenom Pharos once again broke the boundaries in the field of nanoscale imaging. It is the first desktop SEM solution that includes a field emission gun (FEG) source. Karl: “With the FEG source we increased our imaging range in the single digit nanoscale range, offering a system with the same ease of use making FEG accessible to everyone. It is easy to operate, from the initial installation to the actual usage, thanks to its intuitive design. The advanced hardware design and detectors enable a fast time to image and easy, foolproof handling.”

Every interaction is easy and intuitive, starting with the ordering process: one code provides a fully-functional FEG SEM with a backscattered electron detector (BSD). Options include a secondary electron detector (SED) and/or energy-dispersive X-ray detector (EDX), along with sophisticated analytical software.

The advanced detectors can acquire high-quality images with magnifications of up to one million times. Thanks to the column design, high-resolution imaging (<3 nm, SE) is done at the same working distance as analytical work. And image acquisition takes only seven seconds or less. This easy operation and intuitive UI enable a very high throughput on a FEG SEM, making the benefits of FEG accessible to everyone.

The impact on the SEM world

Phenom desktop SEMs continue to break boundaries in the field of nanoscale imaging. Year on year we are growing the market. We are highly ambitious and constantly working on more detectors, better resolution, and better signals. We are demonstrating that fewer and fewer people actually need a large SEM system to perform the measurements they need for their research.

Their size and portability are also having a huge impact as with the demolition response teams I mentioned earlier. They’re also being used on naval ships, assessing aircraft components to determine if helicopters are ready for operation. The range of applications that the Phenom can be used in is expanding with every new tweak we make. We’re really proud to be introducing the benefits of SEM to so many people.

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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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