SEM trends: what is next? Automated scanning electron microscopy

By Willem van Zyl - January 17, 2019

Automated scanning electron microscopy (SEM) saves operators valuable time. Both in research and in industry this further development of SEM is in great demand and is a rapidly growing field. Thermo Fisher Scientific™ already offers innovative Phenom desktop SEM products and applications for automated imaging as well as analysis.

In industry, automation is anything but a new phenomenon. Using automated systems enables companies to produce large quantities of products with simultaneous precise and rapid quality control. Although SEM technology is used in the manufacturing industry for microscopic analysis (for example for quality and failure control), automated SEM systems with a high and fast sample throughput are rarely available on the market. One of the main reasons for this is that SEM is technically very sophisticated. In addition, SEM has traditionally been primarily a technology for scientists and research purposes. For them, a high sample throughput is not as important as for manufacturers, for whom several hours or even minutes can have a big impact on the eventual profit.

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Advantages of automated SEM systems

As mentioned above, the most obvious advantage of automated SEM systems is a much higher sample throughput. Automated SEMs are able to deliver a statistically-relevant characterization of different samples within a shorter time frame. Moreover, only automated systems can literally find the ‘needle in the haystack’. This becomes relevant if the operator’s task is to find a specific feature on a sample within a large number of other features. In this case, automatic imaging and analysis offers a great advantage over human operators.

Another advantage of using an automated system is that it eliminates human bias. Individual users direct their attention to problems in very different ways. Therefore, having different users examine the same problem makes comparing results difficult. Only automated systems can guarantee consistent results.

As a consequence, virtually all SEM operators benefit from a faster, automated SEM imaging process and a subsequent automated image analysis. The good news is: new developments and advances in SEM are delivering automated solutions – and one can say with confidence that the future of SEM lies in automated systems.

Thermo Scientific Phenom desktop SEM automated products

As a company that is dedicated to delivering innovative and forward-thinking SEM solutions, Thermo Fisher Scientific has already started to offer automated approaches and applications. The Thermo Scientific Phenom XL is a desktop SEM that enables automated analysis of samples, while at the same time providing the fastest ventilation and evacuation cycle of any SEM available on the market. The entire process of venting the chamber, placing the sample and establishing the vacuum environment only takes approximately one minute. Moreover, the innovative sample holder can accommodate up to 36 small specimens on stubs or one single large object with a maximum size of 100 square centimeters. Thus, operators are able to quickly examine many samples or different spots within one large object.

In order to analyze the imaging data, different automation scripts are provided. Users can apply these algorithms to automatically acquire, analyze and evaluate images. This can speed up the examination process enormously.

In industry, these compact and semi-automated systems can, for instance, be positioned next to the production line and provide quality control and failure analysis in real-time. Such set-ups mark the first step towards a fully automated SEM analysis that complements round-the-clock production.

Forensic applications

But it’s not only the manufacturing industry that benefits from analyzing many samples in a short period of time. For example, forensic technicians have to search for microscopically small particles on samples found at the crime scene or on the suspect. In this context, they have to examine a large number of samples and need results as quickly as possible.

Thermo Fisher Scientific already offers a specific application for this, the Thermo Scientific Phenom GSR desktop SEM. Gunshot residue (GSR) analysis plays an important role in determining whether a firearm has been used in a crime. With a SEM, technicians can scan samples and search for suspect GSR particles — a classic ‘needle in the haystack’ problem. If such particles are detected, a subsequent Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS) technique is applied to identify the elemental composition.

Using this procedure, investigators can conclude whether a firearm was used and even if a suspect person has been in close range to the firearm or not. Thermo Fisher Scientific put the world’s first Phenom desktop SEM on the market, which can run an automated GSR analysis. And it enables forensic service workers to examine a large number of samples automatically – for instance overnight. More information can be found on our website here.

Automated risk assessment: AsbestoMetric

Another specific automated application that has been developed is the Thermo Scientific Phenom AsbestoMetric Software for the detection of asbestos fibers. Since asbestos is a hazardous material, standards exist that describe the procedures that must be followed for a correct assessment of risks. These instructions include the analysis of collected material with a SEM in order to detect the potential presence of microscopic asbestos fibers.

In general, this is a complex and time-consuming process because, according to the guidelines, more than 100 images must be inspected. And in general, only highly experienced SEM operators are able to detect the fibers as they are tiny and produce barely any contrast. However, Thermo Fisher Scientific succeeded in shortening this process significantly by automating the repetitive tasks in their Phenom desktop SEMs. With this system, the operator only has to verify the outcome and certify the accuracy of the results instead of spending hours searching for very small fibers. Since the SEM required for this task is quite compact, it can also be used as a mobile set-up in a vehicle. Several construction companies are already doing so and by using AsbestoMetric, they can immediately determine if there is asbestos on site and assess the risk. For more information, have a look at our blog.

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These examples clearly show automated processes are already supporting SEM users today. In future, automation will be part of every state-of-the-art SEM. With the automated solutions that is has available, Phenom desktop SEMs are already one step ahead. And the developers of the company are working hard to keep it that way in the future.

Download the AsbestoMetric specification sheet 

Topics: Automation

About the author

Willem van Zyl is an application specialist for the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He is excited by analytical instruments that are accessible and user-friendly, and truly believes that an SEM image is worth a kazillion words.

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