An electron microscope is a type of microscope that uses electrons to illuminate a specimen and create an enlarged image. Electron microscopes have much greater resolving power than light microscopes and can obtain much higher magnifications. Some electron microscopes can magnify specimens up to 2 million times, while the best light microscopes are limited to magnifications of 2000 times. Both electron and light microscopes have resolution limitations, imposed by their wavelength. The greater resolution and magnification of the electron microscope is due to the wavelength of an electron, its de Broglie wavelength, being much smaller than that of a light photon, electromagnetic radiation.
The electron microscope uses electrostatic and electromagnetic lenses in forming the image by controlling the electron beam to focus it at a specific plane relative to the specimen in a manner similar to how a light microscope uses glass lenses to focus light on or through a specimen to form an image.
Reinhold Rudenberg, the research director of Siemens, had patented the electron microscope in 1931, although Siemens was doing no research on electron microscopes at that time. In 1937 Siemens began funding Ruska and Bodo von Borries to develop an electron microscope. Siemens also employed Ruska's brother Helmut to work on applications, particularly with biological specimens.
Siemens produced the first commercial TEM in 1939, but the first practical electron microscope had been built at the University of Toronto in 1938, by Eli Franklin Burton and students Cecil Hall, James Hillier, and Albert Prebus.
Although modern electron microscopes can magnify objects up to two million times, they are still based upon Ruska's prototype. The electron microscope is an integral part of many laboratories. Researchers use them to examine biological materials (such as microorganisms and cells), a variety of large molecules, medical biopsy samples, metals and crystalline structures and the characteristics of various surfaces. The electron microscope is also used extensively for inspection, quality assurance and failure analysis applications in industry, including, in particular, semiconductor device fabrication.
Resolution of the TEM is limited primarily by spherical aberration, but a new generation of aberration correctors have been able to partially overcome spherical aberration to increase resolution. Software correction of spherical aberration for the High Resolution TEM HRTEM has allowed the production of images with sufficient resolution to show carbon atoms in diamond separated by only 0.89 ångström (89 picometers) and atoms in silicon at 0.78 ångström (78 picometers) at magnifications of 50 million times. The ability to determine the positions of atoms within materials has made the HRTEM an important tool for nano-technologies research and development.
Generally, the TEM resolution is about an order of magnitude greater than the SEM resolution, however, because the SEM image relies on surface processes rather than transmission it is able to image bulk samples and has a much greater depth of view, and so can produce images that are a good representation of the 3D structure of the sample.
Materials to be viewed under an electron microscope may require processing to produce a suitable sample. The technique required varies depending on the specimen and the analysis required:
Electron microscopes are expensive to build and maintain, but the capital and running costs of confocal light microscope systems now overlaps with those of basic electron microscopes. They are dynamic rather than static in their operation, requiring extremely stable high-voltage supplies, extremely stable currents to each electromagnetic coil/lens, continuously-pumped high- or ultra-high-vacuum systems, and a cooling water supply circulation through the lenses and pumps. As they are very sensitive to vibration and external magnetic fields, microscopes designed to achieve high resolutions must be housed in stable buildings (sometimes underground) with special services such as magnetic field cancelling systems. Some desktop low voltage electron microscopes have TEM capabilities at very low voltages (around 5 kV) without stringent voltage supply, lens coil current, cooling water or vibration isolation requirements and as such are much less expensive to buy and far easier to install and maintain, but do not have the same ultra-high (atomic scale) resolution capabilities as the larger instruments.
The samples largely have to be viewed in vacuum, as the molecules that make up air would scatter the electrons. One exception is the environmental scanning electron microscope, which allows hydrated samples to be viewed in a low-pressure (up to ), wet environment.
Scanning electron microscopes usually image conductive or semi-conductive materials best. Non-conductive materials can be imaged by an environmental scanning electron microscope. A common preparation technique is to coat the sample with a several-nanometer layer of conductive material, such as gold, from a sputtering machine; however, this process has the potential to disturb delicate samples.
Small, stable specimens such as carbon nanotubes, diatom frustules and small mineral crystals (asbestos fibres, for example) require no special treatment before being examined in the electron microscope. Samples of hydrated materials, including almost all biological specimens have to be prepared in various ways to stabilize them, reduce their thickness (ultrathin sectioning) and increase their electron optical contrast (staining). There is a risk that these processes may result in artifacts, but these can usually be identified by comparing the results obtained by using radically different specimen preparation methods. It is generally believed by scientists working in the field that as results from various preparation techniques have been compared and that there is no reason that they should all produce similar artifacts, it is reasonable to believe that electron microscopy features correspond with those of living cells. In addition, higher-resolution work has been directly compared to results from X-ray crystallography, providing independent confirmation of the validity of this technique. Since the 1980s, analysis of cryofixed, vitrified specimens has also become increasingly used by scientists, further confirming the validity of this technique.
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