The Future of Scanning Electron Microscopy with SEM Automation

Thermo Fisher Scientific™’s Director of Market Development, Kai van Beek analyzes the market and highlights how the company’s products fit customers’ needs – both in the present and future. Alongside his team, van Beek outlines the roadmap for product development.

For close to 20 years, he has been using automated scanning electron microscopy (SEM) solutions. In this article, Kai speaks about his numerous years of SEM experience and elaborates on current and future automated SEM products, the demands of the market, and his personal vision surrounding SEM automation.

Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Desktop Electron Microscopy Solutions offers innovative SEM products such as automated solutions. Who is your intended target audience for such products?

In reality, there are lots of people, who – in their daily work life – require measurements using SEM systems. More often than not, such people need to look at hundreds of images or repeat the same measurement repeatedly. Our aim is to make these people more productive.

And who are these people?

It could be a variety of people – ranging from a scientist to an industrial researcher to a production line worker. Many a time, they have to examine lots of data extracted from the SEM images.

Could you share a few examples?

A good example of this is gunshot residue analysis. In the event where a firearm is discharged, it emits a plume of distinct particles. These particles can then settle on hands and clothing. As soon as a sample is removed from the hands or clothing, a forensic scientist needs to analyze thousands of particles on the sample, in an effort to identify those few particles that distinctly come from the discharge of a firearm.

Yet another example is the cleanliness during production processes. During assembly manufacture, dirt and dust are introduced from the production hall and the manufacturing steps – for instance, the drilling of a hole. In this case, the production engineer will collect samples and subsequently analyze thousands of particles to decide whether the production process is clean enough to produce quality products. People need to be able to answer questions like these, quickly and easily.

Gunshot residue analysis with a SEM

Figure 1. Gunshot residue analysis with a SEM

That means in the field of material analysis, automated SEM solutions can make the work much faster?

Yes, of course. Moreover, automated analysis avoids human bias. When you sit in front of a system and look at an SEM image, your eye tends to gravitate to characteristics that stand out. However, there might be another 50 features which are ignored, although they could reveal something, too. What’s more, especially in industry, there are multiple users – so, it is challenging to achieve comparable results without automation.

Just to be clear: this means time-saving and elimination of human bias are the main advantages of automated SEM systems compared to non-automated ones?

There are basically three main reasons why SEM automation is important. The first: eliminating human bias. Another one is statistical characterization – only automated systems are able to image a large variety of different particles or spots within a reasonable time. Lastly, the third reason is the “needle in a haystack” problem: the need for a specific feature within a large number of other features. Critically, the two last reasons save lots of time.

Regarding commercial products, is it true that automated solutions and applications for scanning electron microscopes are a rather new phenomenon?

Not necessarily. In fact, it is actually quite old – probably dating back to the 1970s. Once people had an SEM, they realized that automation would simplify things. Let’s consider another simple example: the requirement to not only make one image of the sample, but 100. Obviously, in such a scenario, one wants to automate that process.

So could we say that researchers, in particular, have been automating their imaging and analysis ever since they started working with SEM?

True, but those working in fields outside of research have also sought to automate their SEM. For instance, in the case of gunshot residue (GSR) analysis, which is an SEM application that was automated very early on. In order to determine if a firearm has been used in a crime, all the operator needed to do was look at the sample and search for the gunshot residue particles. This again is the so-called “needle in the haystack” problem. It can be maddening trying to find these particles.

But isn't it true that automated SEM systems are considered a new trend?

Agreed. Older, legacy automated SEMs required well-trained operators to run the system. Today, there are systems such as the Phenom desktop SEM, which are very easy to operate. It is also possible to automate the Phenom desktop SEM.

So, that means that modern SEM systems are smaller, faster and easier to operate compared to older models, right?

…and, thus, the system is more economical to operate. What’s more, analyzing and storing vast amounts of data is much easier today. When used in conjunction, all these things have made the technique, and especially automated solutions, far more accessible.

What was really necessary to develop automated SEM solution for a broader audience?

In particular, the stability of the system. Naturally, in automated SEMs, the operator leaves the system working alone. In order to obtain quality images and to be able to trust the results, several parameters need to remain stable for different images – such as ‘focus’ or ‘contrast.’ These days, the sample preparation can be done very routinely. Also vital to the process is longer life of the electron source. Ordinarily, conventional sources used to burn out after 100 hours. With a system that runs many hours per day, this means replacing the filament every week. Thus, our SEMs, for example, use a long-life electron source that can run continuously for long periods of time.

You mentioned, "stability of the system." What technical requirements are thus placed on the system by this condition?

Essentially, the detector and the electron source need to work in a very stable and reliable manner. For instance, earlier EDX detectors, which provide chemical information about the sample, were unstable. That has changed now. Over and above that, the system now is much more compact. As a result, it is now possible to put it almost anywhere and immediately start collecting data.

When you leave the system unattended, how can you ensure that the data is reliable?

Reliability of data is a very critical issue. Operators must ensure that they can trust the results – for instance, from a product released into the market or investigation of a customer sample. Thus, we provide so-called reference samples that highlight how the system behaves during automation.

Does the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom product range use different reference samples for testing the instrument?

Yes, and it depends on the purpose of the SEM. For instance, there are different reference samples – like for the automotive industry or for gunshot residue. The reference samples will represent the samples used by the customers. Moreover, prior to the system leaving the factory, it is tested with the particular reference sample in the way the customer will use it.

At present, what are the most used applications for automated SEM systems?

Presumably, gunshot residue, since it is one of the oldest applications. It is technically challenging to apply automated SEM in the automotive industry. However, this industry already uses our products to monitor the assembly process of certain parts, as well as to inspect the final product microscopically. A further application is for imaging microscopic fibers. Here, there are many different types of fibers that hold many things together. Finally, another important field is the analysis of minerals.

An example of automatic detection of fibers with SEM

Figure 2. An example of automatic detection of fibers with SEM

When it comes to the Phenom product range, what kind of automated SEM products in particular are you offering?

The products we supply should enable a healthier, cleaner and safer world. In dedicated markets, specific solutions such as the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom AsbestoMetric Software are available, enabling operators to detect asbestos fibers automatically. The software enables a quick risk assessment of these hazardous fibers. Moreover, for forensic purposes, gunshot residue desktop SEM, the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Perception GSR Desktop SEM can be used. What’s more, there are dedicated solutions for additive manufacturing and the automotive industry.

And for scientists in the lab?

There are automated scripts for imaging and data analysis. Moreover, customers are allowed to make their own scripts, in order to automate their workflows. Our systems’ users are very creative with great ideas; thus they do not want to wait for us to implement them. In return, we encourage them to start realizing their ideas.

Are automated SEM systems still more suitable and important for big companies with large production lines, rather than for small companies or research labs?

Automated SEM does not depend on the size of the company or the lab. What it really depends on is the question to be answered. Our customers include big as well as small companies – both requiring automated solutions. However, in the past, systems were much larger and more difficult to operate. At such a time, only large companies were able to afford these systems, as well as the trained experts to operate them.

Soon there will be an ISO standard in place specifying, among others, the qualification of the SEM for quantitative measurements. Will this standard drive automation?

It’s great because these standards normalize best practices. For instance, consider a new product for automation. This will be purchased by a few early adopters, who see the value. However, not everybody is an early adopter – some people and companies prefer to wait a while.

The ISO standards are helpful for such people, since they define the best practices. Besides, the ISO standards help everyone by having a common language. Especially in industry, you always have this sort of communication between a supplier and a customer. Assuming the automotive industry buys steel from a steel plant, the quality of this steel can be tested according to a standard. Thus, the ISO standard makes it easier to meet the expectations of both partners, potentially driving the development of automated SEM systems.

Are there any new automated SEM applications on the horizon?

Nanoparticles are the next big thing, and, for instance, plastic nanoparticles are showing up everywhere. Thus, customers want to start monitoring this. Where are these nanoparticles, what are they made of and where do they come from? For example, the interest in this can be driven by health or environmental concerns. Large area mapping is yet another field – which evolves because data storing is quite cheap and easy.

Why is this so?

This is the case to test the uniformity of material, which is becoming more and more important. Subsequently, the SEM data can be combined with information from other sources. Assuming one takes a picture with a cell phone of a part that has failed. Afterwards, these can be made into SEM images to get microscopic information. In addition, it can also generate chemical information, and so on. Thus, as is obvious, there are a variety of different data sources. One can literally build up a “picture” about this part containing all the information collected. Eventually, this can lead to an understanding of why it has failed. Such correlated data will be more and more important in the future.

Are there any new markets with potential demand for innovative SEM solutions?

One market seems to be electric vehicles. This development will transform the requirements for the automotive industry. Electric vehicles come with a huge variety of electronic parts and devices. Thus, these electronics and the batteries themselves need to be controlled and microscopically imaged.

What is your vision regarding automation in SEM?

From a personal viewpoint, automated SEM’s value is really to demonstrate small features, while the value of the chemistry is to differentiate between features.

We believe the next level of automation is the analysis of the interface of materials or multiple layers of materials. Such a process is only taking place in academia, and not in an automated manner. For instance, in the case of steel, it is possible to analyze the interface between the steel and the inclusion. Or think of airborne particles – which can be made of plastic, which can also have a coating. If this particle is swallowed, it makes a massive difference whether it is coated with a certain chemical or not.

Last but not least, what motivates you during work?

What personally drives me is creating products that people can really use. It gives me great pleasure to see people using our tools to work productively. At that time, I want them to obtain the best possible results. The use of our products should provide insights which were previously not available. Therefore, if they are happy, I am happy.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Thermo Fisher Scientific Phenom-World BV.

For more information on this source, please visit Thermo Fisher Scientific Phenom-World BV.

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