Electron microscopes

Electron microscopes have emerged as a powerful tool for the characterization of a wide range of materials. Their versatility and extremely high spatial resolution render them a very valuable tool for many applications. The two main types of electron microscopes are the transmission electron microscope (TEM) and the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Here, we briefly describe their similarities and differences.

The difference between SEM and TEM

The main difference between SEM and TEM is that SEM creates an image by detecting reflected or knocked-off electrons, while TEM uses transmitted electrons (electrons that are passing through the sample) to create an image. As a result, TEM offers valuable information on the inner structure of the sample, such as crystal structure, morphology and stress state information, while SEM provides information on the sample’s surface and its composition.

Working principle of scanning electron microscopes and transmission electron microscopes

Let us start with the similarities. For both techniques, electrons are used to acquire images of samples. Their main components are the same:

  • An electron source
  • A series of electromagnetic and electrostatic lenses to control the shape and trajectory of the electron beam
  • Electron apertures

All of these components are housed inside a chamber that is under high vacuum.

Now for the differences. SEMs use a specific set of coils to scan the beam in a raster-like pattern and collect the scattered electrons.

The transmission electron microscopy (TEM) principle, as the name suggests, is to use the transmitted electrons, the electrons that are passing through the sample before they are collected. As a result, TEM offers invaluable information on the inner structure of the sample, such as crystal structure, morphology, and stress state information, while SEM provides information on the sample’s surface and its composition.

Moreover, one of the most pronounced differences between the two methods is the optimal spatial resolution that they can achieve. SEM resolution is limited to ~0.5 nm, while with the recent development in aberration-corrected TEMs, images with spatial resolution of even less than 50 pm have been reported.

Which electron microscopy technique is best for your analysis?

This all depends on what type of analysis you want to perform. For example, if you want to get information on the surface of your sample, like roughness or contamination detection, then you should choose a SEM. On the other hand, if you would like to know what the crystal structure of your sample is, or if you want to look for possible structural defects or impurities, then using a TEM is the only way to do so.

SEMs provide a 3D image of the surface of the sample, whereas TEM images are 2D projections of the sample, which in some cases makes the interpretation of the results more difficult for the operator.

Due to the requirement for transmitted electrons, TEM samples must be very thin (generally less than 150 nm) and in cases that high-resolution imaging is required, even below 30 nm, whereas for SEM imaging, there is no such specific requirement.

This reveals one more major difference between the two techniques: sample preparation. SEM samples require little or no effort for sample preparation and can be directly imaged by mounting them on an aluminum stub.

In contrast, TEM sample preparation is a quite complex and tedious procedure that only trained and experienced users can follow successfully. The samples need to be very thin, as flat as possible, and the preparation technique should not introduce any artifacts (such as precipitates or amorphization) to the sample. Many methods have been developed, including electropolishing, mechanical polishing, and focused ion beam milling. Dedicated grids and holders are used to mount the TEM samples.

SEM vs TEM: Differences in operation

The two EM systems also differ in the way they are operated. SEMs usually use acceleration voltages up to 30 kV, while TEM users can set it in the range of 60–300 kV.

The magnifications that TEMs offer are also much higher compared to SEMs. TEM users can magnify their samples by more than 50 million times, while for the SEM, this is limited to 1–2 million times.

However, the maximum field of view (FOV) that SEMs can achieve is far larger than TEMs, meaning TEM users can only image a very small part of their sample. Similarly, the depth of field of SEM systems is much higher than in TEM systems.

Electron microscopy images of silicon. a) SEM image with SED offers information on the morphology of the surface, while b) TEM image reveals structural information about the inner sample.
Electron microscopy images of silicon. a) SEM image with SED offers information on the morphology of the surface, while b) TEM image reveals structural information about the inner sample.

In addition, the way images are created are different in the two systems. In SEMs, samples are positioned at the bottom of the electron column, and the scattered electrons (back-scattered or secondary) are captured by electron detectors. Photomultipliers are then used to convert this signal into a voltage signal, which is amplified to create the image on a PC screen.

In a TEM microscope, the sample is located in the middle of the column. The transmitted electrons pass through it and through a series of lenses below the sample (intermediate and projector lenses). An image is directly shown on a fluorescent screen or via a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera onto a PC screen.

Summary of the main differences between a SEM and a TEM.

Type of electrons
  • Scattered, scanning electrons
  • Transmitted electrons
High tension
  • ~1–30 kV
  • ~60–300 kV
Specimen thickness
  • Any
  • Typically <150 nm
Type of info
  • 3D image of surface
  • 2D projection image of inner structure
Max. magnification
  • Up to ~1–2 million times
  • More than 50 million times
Max. FOV
  • Large
  • Limited
Optimal spatial resolution
  • ~0.5 nm
  • <50 pm
Image formation
  • Electrons are captured and counted by detectors, image on PC screen
  • Direct imaging on fluorescent screen or PC screen with CCD
  • Little or no sample preparation, easy to use
  • Laborious sample preparation, trained users required

Generally, TEMs are more complex to operate. TEM users require intensive training before being able to operate them. Special procedures need to be performed before every use, with several steps included that ensure that the electron beam is perfectly aligned. In the table above, you can see a summary of the main differences between a SEM and a TEM.

Combining SEM and TEM technology

There is one more electron microscopy technique to mention, which is a combination of TEM and SEM, namely scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM). It can be applied to both systems, but its full capabilities are revealed when applied to a TEM tool. Most modern TEMs can be switched to “STEM mode”, and the user only needs to alter their alignment procedure. In STEM mode, the beam is finely focused and scans the sample area (as SEM does), while the image is generated by the transmitted electrons (like in TEM).

When working in STEM mode, the users can take advantage of the capabilities of both techniques. They can look at the inner structure of samples with very high resolving power (even higher than TEM resolution), but also use other signals like X-rays and electron energy loss. These signals can be used in spectroscopic techniques: energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) and electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS).

Of course, EDX is also a common practice in SEM systems and is used to identify the chemical composition of samples by detecting the characteristic X-rays that are emitted from the materials when they are bombarded with electrons.

EELS can only be realized in a TEM system working in STEM mode and enables the investigation of the atomic and chemical composition, the electronic properties, and the local thickness measurements of materials. 

Other decision factors when selecting and buying an electron microscope


Desktop SEM systems require minimal sample preparation and their relaxed vacuum requirements and small evacuated volume allow the system to present an image much more quickly than a typical floor model system.

Moreover, desktop SEMs are usually operated by the consumer of the information, eliminating the time required a dedicated operator to perform the analysis, prepare a report and communicate the result.

In addition to faster answers, there is considerable intangible value in the immediacy of the analysis and the user’s ability to direct the investigation in real-time response to observations.

Finally, in some applications, such as inspection, longer delays carry a tangible cost by putting more work-in-progress at risk.


Is the application routine well defined? If it is, and a desktop SEM can provide the required information, why spend more? Concerns about future requirements exceeding the desktop capability should be evaluated in terms of the certainty and timing of the potential requirements and the availability of outside resources for more demanding applications.

Even in cases where future requirements will exceed desktop capability, the initial investment in a desktop SEM can continue to deliver a return as that system is used to supplement a future floor model system.

Perhaps in a screening capacity or to continue to perform routine analyses while the floor model system is applied to more demanding applications.

A desktop system may also serve as a step-wise approach to the justification of a larger system, establishing the value of SEM while allowing an experience-based evaluation of the need and cost of more advanced capability from an outside provider.


How many individuals will be using the system? Are the users trained? If not, how much time are they willing to invest in training? Desktop SEMs are simple to operate and require little or no sample preparation. Obtaining an image can be as easy as pushing a couple of buttons.

More advanced procedures can be accessed by users with specific needs who are willing to invest a little time in training. In general, the requirements for operator training are much lower with a desktop system and the system itself is much more robust. It is harder to break, and the potential repair cost is much lower.

Choosing between SEM and TEM

From everything we have mentioned, it is clear that there is no “better” technique; it all depends on the type of analysis that you require. TEM is the choice when you want to get information from the inner structure, while SEM is preferred when surface information is required. Of course, major decision factors are the big price difference between the two systems, as well as the ease of use. TEMs may enable much more resolving power and versatility for the user, but they are much more expensive and larger than SEMs and require more effort in order to acquire and interpret results.

To discover more about SEM and see if it fits your research requirements, you can take a look at our free e-guide: How to choose a Scanning Electron Microscope. This E-guide is intended to assist you in choosing the most suitable Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) systems for your research.


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