Getting A Close-Up View Of Chip Formation With An SEM

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’ve got a scanning electron microscope, everything must look like a sample that would be really, really interesting to see enlarged in all its 3D glory. And this is what [Zachary Tong] delivers with this up close and personal look at the chip formation process.

We’ve got to hand it to [Zach] with this one, because it seems like this was one of those projects that just fought back the whole time. Granted, the idea of cutting metal inside the vacuum chamber of an SEM seems like quite an undertaking right up front. To accomplish this, [Zach] needed to build a custom tool to advance a cutting edge into a piece of stock by tiny increments. His starting point was a simple off-the-shelf linear stage, which needed a lot of prep work before going into the SEM vacuum chamber. The stage’s micrometer advances a carbide insert into a small piece of aluminum 50 microns at a time, raising a tiny sliver of aluminum while it slowly plows a tiny groove into the workpiece.

Getting the multiple shots required to make a decent animation with this rig was no mean feat. [Zach]’s SEM sample chamber doesn’t have any electrical connections, so each of the 159 frames required a painstaking process of advancing the tool, pulling down a vacuum in the chamber, and taking a picture. With each frame taking at least five minutes, this was clearly a labor of love. The results are worth it, though; stitched together, the electron micrographs show the chip formation process in amazing detail. The aluminum oxide layer on the top of the workpiece is clearly visible, as are the different zones of cutting action. The grain of the metal is also clearly visible, and the “gumminess” of the chip is readily apparent too.

For as much work as this was, it seems like [Zach] had things a bit easier than [Ben Krasnow] did when he tried something similar with a much less capable SEM.

Continue reading “Getting A Close-Up View Of Chip Formation With An SEM”

Building An Electron Microscope For Research

There are a lot of situations where a research group may turn to an electron microscope to get information about whatever system they might be studying. Assessing the structure of a virus or protein, analyzing the morphology of a new nanoparticle, or examining the layout of a semiconductor all might require the use of one of these devices. But if your research involves the electron microscope itself, you might be a little more reluctant to tear down these expensive devices to take a look behind the curtain as the costs to do this for more than a few could quickly get out of hand. That’s why this research group has created their own electron detector.

Specifically, the electron detector is designed for use in a scanning electron microscope, which is typically used for inspecting the surface of a sample and retrieving a high-resolution, 3D image of it compared to transmission microscopes which can probe internal structures. The detector is built on a four-layer PCB which includes the photodiode sensing array, a series of amplifiers, and a power supply. All of the circuit diagrams and schematics are available for inspection as well thanks to the design being licensed under the open Creative Commons license. For any research team looking to build this, a bill of materials is also included, as is a set of build instructions.

While this is only one piece of the puzzle surrounding the setup and operation of an electron microscope, its arguably the most important, and also greatly lowers the barrier of entry for anyone looking to analyze electron microscope design themselves. With an open standard, anyone is free to modify or augment this design as they see fit which is a marked improvement over the closed and expensive proprietary microscopes out there. And, if low-cost microscopes are your thing be sure to check out this fluorescence microscope we featured that uses readily-available parts to dramatically lower the cost compared to commercial offerings.

Machine Learning Helps Electron Microscopy

Machine learning is supposed to help us do everything these days, so why not electron microscopy? A team from Ireland has done just that and published their results using machine learning to enhance STEM — scanning transmission electron microscopy. The result is important because it targets a very particular use case — low dose STEM.

The problem is that to get high resolutions, you typically need to use high electron doses. However, bombarding a delicate, often biological, subject with high-energy electrons may change what you are looking at and damage the sample. But using reduced electron dosages results in a poor image due to Poisson noise. The new technique learns how to compensate for the noise and produce a better-quality image even at low dosages.

Continue reading “Machine Learning Helps Electron Microscopy”

Electron Microscope Conversion Hack

Some of you probably know this already, but there’s actually more than one kind of electron microscope. In electronics work, the scanning electron microscope (SEM) is the most common. You hit something with electrons and watch for secondary electron emissions. However, biologists more often use a TEM — a transmissive electron microscope — which passes electrons through a sample to image it. [Breaking Taps] built a small device to convert his SEM into a TEM.

One key idea is that in a SEM, the beam’s position on the target is the only thing that matters. Any secondary electron detected is a result of that spot’s composition, no matter where you collect them. Common detectors pick up back-scattered electrons bouncing back toward the electron source.  There are also low-energy electrons bouncing off in random directions, depending on the topology of the target.

The slow electrons can be attracted by a single detector that has a strong positive charge. TEM  doesn’t detect secondary electron emissions. Instead, it passes electrons through a target and collects the ones that pass through a very thin sample using a screen that glows when electrons hit it.

The idea, then, is to create a STEM-SEM device. There’s a sample holder and an angled reflector that shoots electrons passing toward the SEM’s detector. The back-scatter detector is not used, and a shield prevents the detector from seeing secondary emissions from the target itself.

You can buy these, but they are well over $1,000, so in true hacker fashion, [Breaking Taps] made his own.  You could, too, but you’d need a pretty good machine shop and — oh yeah — a scanning electron microscope.

While we have seen some home labs with electron microscopes, you need some high-tech vacuum and high-voltage gear, so it isn’t too common. Armed with a STEM, you can even see the shadows of atoms.

Continue reading “Electron Microscope Conversion Hack”

Viewing Atoms With Electrons

When we were in school, they always told us we can’t see atoms. If you have an electron microscope, then they were wrong. [AlphaPhoenix] has access to a scanning tunneling transmission electron microscope and he shows us some atoms in a very thin slice of a crystal.

Of course, you aren’t directly imaging the atoms. You are looking at the shadows of the atoms, but still. If you’ve never worked with a SEM or STEM before, there are plenty of little details that are interesting like the sample holders and the vacuum system.

Continue reading “Viewing Atoms With Electrons”

Microscopy Hack Chat With Zachary Tong

Join us on Wednesday, June 23 at noon Pacific for the Microscopy Hack Chat with Zachary Tong!

There was a time when electronics was very much a hobby that existed in the macroscopic world. Vacuum tubes, wire-wound resistors, and big capacitors were all mounted on terminal strips and mounted in a heavy chassis or enclosure, and interfacing with everything from components to tools was more an exercise in gross motor skills than fine. Even as we started to shrink components down to silicon chips, the packages we put them in were still large enough to handle and see easily. It’s only comparatively recently that everything has started to push the ludicrous end of the scale, with components and processes suitable only for microscopic manipulation, but that’s pretty much where we are now, and things are only likely to get smaller as time goes on.

The microscopic world is a fascinating one, and the tools and techniques to explore it are often complex. That doesn’t mean microscopy is out of the wheelhouse of the average hacker, though. Zachary Tong, proprietor of the delightfully eclectic Breaking Taps channel on YouTube, has been working in the microscopic realm a lot lately. We’ve featured his laser scanning confocal microscope recently, as well as his latest foray into atomic force microscopy. In the past he has also made DIY acrylic lenses, and he has even tried his hand at micromachining glass with lasers.

Zach is pretty comfortable working in and around the microscopic realm, and he’ll stop by the Hack Chat to share what he’s been up to down there. We’ll talk about all the cool stuff going on in Zach’s lab, and see what else he has in store for us.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Ptychography Shows Atoms At Amazing Resolution

Cornell University enhanced electron microscopy using a technique known as ptychography in 2018. At the time, it allowed an electron microscope to resolve things three times smaller than previously possible. But that wasn’t enough. The team has now doubled that resolution by improving on their previous work.

The team says that the images are so precise that the only blurring is due to the thermal motion of the atoms themselves. This could mean that you won’t see a further improvement in resolution in the future.

Continue reading “Ptychography Shows Atoms At Amazing Resolution”