Scanning electron microscopes offer several unique advantages and they have evolved into complex integrated instruments that often incorporate several important accessories. Their principle advantage stems from the method of constructing an image from a highly focused electron beam that scans across the surface of a specimen. The beam generates backscattered electrons and excites secondary electrons and x-rays in a highly localized “spot.” These signals can be detected, and the results of the analysis are displayed as a specific intensity on a screen at a position that represents the position of the electron spot. As with a television image, after a given period, information about the entire field of view is displayed on the screen, resulting in a complete image. If the specimen is thin, the same type of information can be gathered from the transmitted electrons, and a scanning transmission image is thus constructed.
The scanning electron microscope is highly versatile and widely used. The quality of the image is related to its resolution and contrast, which, in turn, depend on the diameter of the focused beam as well as its energy and current. Because electron lenses have inherently high aberrations, the usable aperture angles are much smaller than in a light microscope and, therefore, the electron beam remains focused over a relatively large distance, giving these instruments a very large depth of focus.
Scanning electron microscopes are versatile in their ability to detect and analyze a lot of information. As a result, modern versions of these instruments are equipped with a number of detectors. Developments are sometimes related to placing the detectors in a geometrically attractive position close to the specimen.