In scanning electron microscopy, (SEM) an electron beam is scanned across
a sample's surface. When the electrons strike the sample, a variety of signals
are generated, and it is the detection of specific signals which produces
an image or a sample's elemental composition. The three signals which provide
the greatest amount of information in SEM are the secondary electrons, backscattered
electrons, and X-rays.
Secondary electrons are emitted from the atoms occupying the top surface and produce a readily interpretable image of the surface. The contrast in the image is determined by the sample morphology. A high resolution image can be obtained because of the small diameter of the primary electron beam.
Backscattered electrons are primary beam electrons which are 'reflected' from atoms in the solid. The contrast in the image produced is determined by the atomic number of the elements in the sample. The image will therefore show the distribution of different chemical phases in the sample. Because these electrons are emitted from a depth in the sample, the resolution in the image is not as good as for secondary electrons.
Interaction of the primary beam with atoms in the sample causes shell transitions which result in the emission of an X-ray. The emitted X-ray has an energy characteristic of the parent element. Detection and measurement of the energy permits elemental analysis (Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy or EDS). EDS can provide rapid qualitative, or with adequate standards, quantitative analysis of elemental composition with a sampling depth of 1-2 microns. X-rays may also be used to form maps or line profiles, showing the elemental distribution in a sample surface.