SEM Applications in Failure Analysis and How SEM Can Help You

Small defects can have a massive impact on a product’s safety and function. From medical devices to automotive components and semiconductor devices, the tiniest crack or contaminant could not only reduce a product’s quality and longevity but also result in catastrophic failures and ultimately endanger lives.

Since component failure is often a direct result of numerous microscopic defects, their multi-scale observation and quantification is the only way to determine the root cause and accurately characterize these faults.

This is where SEM failure analysis can help. Scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) are powerful, high-resolution tools that are widely used for a vast range of failure analyses. They provide the magnification and depth of field required to accurately analyze faults and identify failures. They also provide a wealth of information to accurately characterize faults and identify their root cause.

In this blog post, we examine some key failure analysis SEM applications for devices and materials, explaining how a SEM can boost your performance and analysis capabilities.

SEM failure analysis for devices

Our electronic devices are getting smaller and more complex, giving failure-inducing defects more places to hide. To make matters worse, these failures often occur late in the fabrication process, resulting in high yield losses and significant delays in time-to-market for semiconductor manufacturers. As a result, researchers are under pressure to identify failures as quickly and accurately as possible to resume production and reduce the likelihood of such issues returning.

SEM applications for semiconductor fault analysis

Let’s look at an example in the field of semiconductor devices. A SEM can provide the range of information required to conduct extremely precise voltage-contrast measurements to analyze small and complex semiconductor devices.

Previously, high accelerating voltages were used to maximize the signal and reduce time-to-date when imaging semiconductor devices. However, as feature sizes have continued to shrink, high accelerating voltages are no longer appropriate and low voltages are required to accurately image these delicate features.

Modern SEMs work in the low kV range, which is a vital feature to analyze today’s miniaturized semiconductor devices. This allows you to analyze working transistors without adversely affecting their characteristics, for example. You can also resolve layers without interference from the underlying sections and effectively analyze any new materials with minimal beam damage to the device.

If you want to maximize resolution and contrast, the Thermo Scientific Apreo SEM is capable of 0.9 nm at 1 kV and can image materials ranging from nanoparticles, powders, catalysts, and nanodevices to bulk magnetic samples. The Thermo Scientific Verios XHR SEM achieves an electron beam resolution of 0.6 nm at 2-15 kV, allowing for the precise characterization of nanomaterials.

Introducing Environmental SEMs

Modern materials science research has moved beyond traditional metals and coated samples. Today, there is a need for micro and nano-scale information on more complex, challenging materials, including those that are nonconductive, dirty, wet, chemically reactive, or outgassing.

This is where Environmental SEMs (ESEMs) can help. They combine all-around performance in imaging and analytics with a unique environmental mode that allows samples to be studied in their natural state.

The Thermo Scientific Prisma SEM and Quattro SEM, for example, are highly versatile environmental SEMs for quality control and failure analysis applications. This means you can study materials in their natural state.

Scanning electron microscope uses for material failure analysis

Materials science is an interdisciplinary field, focusing on the diverse properties of matter and their potential applications in science and engineering. A thorough analysis of materials is crucial, providing researchers with the information they need to create novel materials with desirable properties.

As novel materials move into the commercial world, failures may result, and many researchers typically turn to optical microscopes to identify and size and number of materials failures. However, these instruments lack the resolution, depth of field, and magnification to identify the source of such faults – and struggle to provide the depth of compositional information required for robust analysis.

SEMs address these issues, providing a fast, accurate, and complete set of information to analyze any faults present in materials. Examples of failure analysis of materials may include metals, plastics, ceramics, glasses, and the detection and identification of unknown particles.

SEM analysis of steel

Let’s look at a materials failure analysis example within the steel industry, where demand is growing for high-value steel that includes differing characteristics to meet specific customer requirements. However, non-metallic inclusions can damage the quality of the steel and even disrupt the manufacturing process, if they are not controlled.

A SEM can provide the fast, accurate, and complete information researchers need to identify inclusions and also help manufacturers optimize their production process.

The Phenom ParticleX Steel Desktop SEM from Thermo Fisher Scientific is an ideal candidate for this use case. It provides researchers with the capabilities to rapidly assess steel cleanliness based on the quantity, morphology, and chemical composition of non-metallic inclusions. This brings many benefits to the failure analysis process, including:

  • Integrated EDS analysis: advanced energy dispersive X-ray (EDS) analysis is directly integrated into the microscope and reliable, high-quality SEM images can be obtained in less than one minute. Researchers can quickly analyze the size and location of inclusions down to 0.5 microns, while also obtaining the elemental composition of each particle. Knowing the size, number, and chemistry of inclusions, steel makers can optimize their steel making process for specific applications and customer demands.
  • Dual uses: The Phenom ParticleX Steel Desktop SEM can be used for both inclusion analysis during the steel making process and failure analysis after the component has been manufactured. During the day, researchers can pinpoint the root cause of failures identified by the customer after the final product has been manufactured. Overnight and on weekends, the SEM can be set up for automated routine inclusion analyses as part of the steel manufacturing process. Together, these capabilities give manufacturers the complete information they need to accelerate the development of higher-quality steels.
  • Automation and ease-of-use: The Phenom ParticleX Steel Desktop SEM fully automates inclusion analysis of steel processing samples, allowing users of all experience levels to see the chemistry, size, and shape of inclusions within seconds. Built-in templates and automated recipes enable researchers to quickly get started and then tailor these recipes to their specific needs as they become more familiar with the microscope. Moreover, with a streamlined user interface, fool-proof sample loading, and industry-specific software, anyone can get quality results from the instrument almost immediately, extending failure analysis to a broader number of users.

The Phenom ParticleX Steel Desktop SEM is one of three in the ParticleX range. We also provide the Phenom ParticleX TC (Technical Cleanliness) Desktop SEM, and Phenom ParticleX AM (Additive Manufacturing) Desktop SEM. The Phenom Perception GSR Desktop SEM also provides SEM EDX gunshot residue analysis.

Benefits of SEM failure analysis

SEM failure analysis provides many benefits across a wide range of applications. These instruments provide nanometer and sub-nanometer resolutions, high magnifications, and superior depth of field when compared to optical microscopes.

Modern SEMs offer a wealth of additional rewards thanks to their extended functionality and ease of use. Now, automation and other integrated features provide you with key information quickly, enabling a fast time to result and simple, foolproof handling, and allowing novice users to easily identify failures and their route causes.

If you would like to find out more about choosing the right SEM for your failure analysis applications, please click here to speak to one of our expert teams today.

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