Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is an empowering technology that has continuously pushed the boundaries of possibility in a wide range of application areas. When it was first introduced in the mid-1960s, SEM microscopy set a new benchmark for high-resolution magnifications and subsequent data capture. It allowed materials scientists and process engineers to resolve their materials at a previously invisible range, uncovering a nanoscale world with implications far beyond academia and industry.
Although we still use similar SEM technology today, the sheer scope of SEM applications has changed dramatically. It now spans everything from the arts to cutting-edge materials science. Nothing short of a thesis could cover in-depth the full range of practical SEM applications today, but in this article, we hope to briefly explore three key uses of SEM technology.
SEMs in Art & Archaeology
The ability to non-destructively assess the trace-level composition and nanoscale topography of high-value samples or analytes of limited quantities is extremely useful for archaeologists and art historians alike. SEMs are now almost universally applied to surface characterizations of materials with artistic value and archaeological objects, from stone age artifacts to Renaissance-era paintings.
Historians have used SEM microscopes to determine the origins of metallic coins, tools, and weapons based on their elemental composition. While art conservationists can reliably monitor the biodeterioration of easel paintings without chemical reagents simply by analyzing the surface with an SEM system.
Biological Science SEM Applications
The role of SEMs in biological sciences is particularly pertinent today given the current debate over climate change and the stark reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the precision and reliability of SEM microscopes are not limited by material type, which means they can be leveraged to probe a limitless range of bioorganic species at the nanoscale. This has proven essential in climate monitoring, epidemiology, genetics, vaccination testing, and more.
SEM applications within the biological sciences involve the observation of tissues under specific test conditions, such as infected cells when introduced to a trial vaccine. If a successful coronavirus vaccine is developed in the future, its efficacy in vitro will likely be assessed using – among other techniques – SEM microscopy.
SEM in Forensic Science
The outstanding level and rich variety of detail that SEMs can provide make it a perfect partner for forensic investigations. As with art, archaeology, and biological science SEM applications, the ability to investigate a choice of materials across an enormous range of magnification without ever inhabiting the instrument’s depth of focus is a massive boon to forensic scientists.
Criminal investigations are now empowered with the ability to assess the individual chemical signature of gunshot residue (GSR) and provide confirmatory information matching GSR found at a crime scene and elsewhere – such as on the clothing or skin of a potential suspect. Other criminological SEM applications include bullet marking comparisons, handwriting analysis, counterfeit detection, and much more.
EOI: More SEM Applications
Electron Optics Instruments (EOI) is one of the market-leading suppliers of SEM technology for an array of application areas. In the coming weeks, we will look to cover more SEM applications in depth. Keep an eye on our blog feed if you would be interested in reading more about the fascinating world of SEM microscopy. Or, contact a member of the EOI team today if you have any questions.