High Resolution Imaging
“High resolution SEM imaging” refers to the capability of discerning fine-scale spatial features of a specimen. Such features may be free-standing objects or structures embedded in a matrix. The definition of “fine-scale” depends on the application, which may involve sub-nanometer features in the most extreme cases. The most important factor determining the limit of spatial resolution is the footprint of the incident beam as it enters the specimen. Depending on the level of performance of the electron optics, the limiting beam diameter can be as small as 1 nm or even finer. However, the ultimate resolution performance is likely to be substantially poorer than the beam footprint and will be determined by one or more of several additional factors: (1) delocalization of the imaging signal, which consists of secondary electrons and/or backscattered electrons, due to the physics of the beam electron ̶ specimen interactions; (2) constraints imposed on the beam size needed to satisfy the Threshold Equation to establish the visibility for the contrast produced by the features of interest; (3) mechanical stability of the SEM; (4) mechanical stability of the specimen mounting; (5) the vacuum environment and specimen cleanliness necessary to avoid contamination of the specimen; (6) degradation of the specimen due to radiation damage; and (7) stray electromagnetic fields in the SEM environment. Recognizing these factors and minimizing or eliminating their impact is critical to achieving optimum high resolution imaging performance. Because achieving satisfactory high resolution SEM often involves operating at the performance limit of the instrument as well as the technique, the experience may vary from one specimen type to another, with different limiting factors manifesting themselves in different situations. Most importantly, because of the limitations on feature visibility imposed by the Threshold Current/Contrast Equation, for a given choice of operating conditions, there will always be a level of feature contrast below which specimen features will not be visible. Thus, there is always a possible “now you see it, now you don’t” experience lurking when we seek to operate at the limit of the SEM performance envelope.
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