A scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning the surface with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with atoms in the sample, producing various signals that contain information about the sample's surface topography and composition. The electron beam is scanned in a raster scan pattern, and the beam's position is combined with the detected signal to produce an image. SEM can achieve resolution better than 1 nanometer. Specimens can be observed in high vacuum in conventional SEM, or in low vacuum or wet conditions in variable pressure or environmental SEM, and at a wide range of cryogenic or elevated temperatures with specialized instruments.
The most common SEM mode is detection of secondary electrons emitted by atoms excited by the electron beam. The number of secondary electrons that can be detected depends, among other things, on specimen topography. By scanning the sample and collecting the secondary electrons that are emitted using a special detector, an image displaying the topography of the surface is created.