70 Years of Electron Microscopy: The History of the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop Scanning Electron Microscope

By Rose Helweg - June 18, 2019

About 70 years ago, Philips built its first commercial electron microscope. This microscope made electron microscopy available to researchers worldwide. Now, 70 years later, electron microscopy plays a fundamental role in research done in various fields, ranging from materials science to life sciences. A big role in making electron microscopy accessible to everybody is played by the Phenom Desktop SEM, originally launched in 2006.

This year, together with the 70-year milestone of commercial electron microscopy, the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Desktop SEM product range has returned to the birthplace of the electron microscope in Eindhoven. In this blog, we look back at 70 years of electron microscopy history, with special emphasis on the Phenom Desktop SEM.

The history of electron microscopy

From the dawn of science, there has been an interest in being able to look at smaller and smaller details of the world around us. One of the earliest instruments for seeing very small objects was made by Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century. It consisted of a powerful lens and an adjustable holder for the object being studied. With this relatively simple microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek managed to magnify objects 270 times. This opened the door to new worlds.

The limiting factor in Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope was the single lens. As it turned out, this problem could be solved by the addition of another lens to magnify the image produced by the first lens. This compound microscope is the basis of light microscopes today.

As scientists and inventors worked hard to achieve better resolution, they soon realized that the resolving power of the microscope was not only limited by the number and quality of the lenses, but also by the wavelength of the light used for illumination. Scientists started asking themselves: what is light? Scientists like Christiaan Huygens, believed that light consisted of waves. Isaac Newton, however, had the opinion that light consisted of small particles, called photons. This matter was settled in 1801, when the double-slit experiments performed by Thomas Young demonstrated the wavelike properties of photons.

Christiaan Huygens (Traité de la lumière, 1690)Isaac Newton (Opticks, 1704)Thomas Young (On the theory of light and colours, 1802)

F.l.t.r.: Christiaan Huygens (Traité de la Lumière, 1690), Isaac Newton (Opticks, 1704) and Thomas Young (On the Theory of Light and Colours, 1802)

A light microscope uses light waves to magnify an object. However, the magnification is dependent on the wavelength of the light. The smaller the wavelength, the smaller the object that can be seen through the microscope. With visible light it was impossible to resolve points in the object that are closer together than a few hundred nanometers.

Around 1900, scientists were examining the so-called photoelectric effect, in which electrons are emitted from a material under the influence of light. In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper with an explanation for this effect (for which he received the Nobel prize in 1921). This explanation requires light to carry energy in discrete quantized packets, suggesting that light behaves like particles. Conversely, Louis de Broglie hypothesized in 1929 that particles (specifically electrons) could behave like waves. He also received the Nobel prize for his work.

These insights paved the way for the evolution of microscopic imaging. As electrons have wave-like properties, with a wavelength that is about 100,000 times shorter than that of visible light, they could be used to image much smaller structures. Furthermore, it was found that electric and magnetic fields could be used to shape the paths followed by electrons, comparable with how glass lenses are used to bend and focus visible light. Ernst Ruska (University of Berlin) combined these characteristics and built the first transmission electron microscope (TEM) in 1933, for which he received a Nobel prize in 1986.

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The Phenom Desktop SEM: electron microscopy made available to everyone

It all started back in 1949, when Philips Electron Optics built the first commercial electron microscopes called EM100. Their innovation made the detailed imaging capabilities of electron microscopy available for researchers worldwide. In 1997, Philips Electron Optics was incorporated into FEI, a high-end electron microscope company.

Schermafbeelding 2019-06-14 om 11.44.00
Left: 1933, first Philips Research Labs Transmission Microscope (400 kV). Right: 1949, first commercial electron microscopes produced at Philips

FEI's R&D department always looked for innovative ways to expand the application and product portfolio. That’s why in 2001, FEI challenged the researchers from Philips Research Labs to create a high-quality scanning electron microscope column that was:

  • 10 times smaller than the standard column
  • Easier to service
  • Less complex, and had fewer parts

The new column that Philips Research Labs came up with, proved to be so effective that it was decided to develop an entire microscope around it, and the Phenom project was born. The assignment of the Phenom project team was to design and build a microscope for the 'average' SEM user who did not require images to be magnified more than ~10,000 times. Also, ease-of-use and speed were key requirements as of the very start.

Schermafbeelding 2019-06-14 om 11.44.48Prototype of the miniature SEM column

In order to make the Phenom project successful, FEI decided to call in the expertise of several partners located in the Eindhoven Brainport area—the Eindhoven high-tech infrastructure. This resulted in a partnership with NTS, a high-tech system supplier whose expertise lies in mechanical product design and manufacturing, and Sioux, an ambitious software company specializing in embedded software. Together, they set out to reinvent FEI’s scanning electron microscope and make it good, affordable, and intuitive.

Electron-Microscope-Timeline-Phenom-Desktop-SEM (1)
Electron Microscope Timeline for Phenom Desktop SEM

In 2003, the Phenom project team continued the project in a unique way. Instead of figuring out which parts could be used from the original 'floor model' microscope, the project team decided to start completely from scratch. With the help from the electronics, software, marketing and mechanics departments, the team determined which functionalities were absolutely necessary to incorporate into the new Phenom electron microscope. The collaboration resulted in the launch of the first Phenom desktop scanning electron microscope in 2006.

The birth of the Phenom Desktop SEM company

In 2009, it was decided to spin-out the product into an independent company in order to create dedicated sales and marketing channels for the Phenom Desktop SEMs. This led to the birth of Phenom-World as a separate company, with FEI keeping a minority interest and NTS and Sioux owning a percentage of the company too. The sales of the Phenom microscope skyrocketed as of the first year of the company’s existence and Phenom-World managed to grow exceptionally year after year.

In the years to come, the company continued to grow and became the global leading supplier of desktop scanning electron microscopes and imaging solutions for sub-micron scale applications. At its headquarters, located in the heart of the Brainport in Eindhoven, a full R&D, Manufacturing, Application Engineering and Marketing and Sales department collaborated, making sub-micron imaging and analysis available to scientists worldwide.

The company’s goal has always been to make electron microscopy accessible to everyone. A continuous investment in research and development led to high-quality electron microscopes that are functionally rich, yet simple to use. Together with highly skilled distribution partners in over 45 countries around the world, the Phenom Desktop SEM continuously ensures that users/operators get fast, accurate results that help them to achieve more in nanotechnology.

Phenom-World is now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific

Together with the 70-year milestone of commercial electron microscopy, Phenom-World returns to the birthplace of the electron microscope by moving to the Innovation Powerhouse, the former Philips Building TR on Strijp-T in Eindhoven. And just like FEI became part of Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2016, Phenom-World became part of the Thermo Fisher Scientific family too—as the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range.

This acquisition creates new opportunities to create greater value for our customers and strengthens our ability to fulfill the mission of Thermo Fisher Scientific; to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer. Through the combined product portfolio, with the best-in-class Phenom Desktop SEM instruments and imaging and analysis packages, and unprecedented R&D capacity, we are looking forward to serving our customers even better, delivering even more value for our customers around the globe. Together, we remain committed to continued innovation and development of the broadest range of high-performance microscopy workflow solutions.




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About the author

Rose Helweg is the Sr Digital Marketing Specialist for Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Desktop SEM. She is driven to unveil the hidden beauty of the nanoworld and by the performance and versatility of the Phenom Desktop SEM product range. She is dedicated to developing new relevant stories about high-tech innovation and the interesting world of electron microscopy.

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