Electron microscopy (EM) is a powerful and versatile imaging technique that allows scientists to observe structures at much higher resolutions than conventional light microscopy. By using a beam of electrons instead of light, electron microscopes can reveal details at the nanometer scale, providing valuable insights into the structure and function of various biological and material samples. This article provides an overview of the principles behind electron microscopy, sample preparation techniques, and some of the limitations of this method.

Electron Microscope РImage from David J Morgan from Cambridge, UK

Principles of Electron Microscopy

Electron microscopes utilize a beam of electrons to image samples. The electrons interact with the sample, and the resulting signals are used to generate a high-resolution image. There are two primary types of electron microscopes: transmission electron microscopes (TEM) and scanning electron microscopes (SEM).

Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM)

In TEM, a high-energy electron beam is transmitted through a thin sample, and the resulting image is formed based on the electrons that pass through or are scattered by the sample. The contrast in the image is generated by the differences in electron scattering properties between different regions of the sample. TEM can achieve extremely high resolutions, allowing researchers to visualize structures at the atomic level.

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

In SEM, a focused electron beam scans across the surface of a sample, generating secondary electrons that are emitted from the sample. These secondary electrons are collected and used to create a detailed, three-dimensional image of the sample's surface. SEM is particularly useful for examining the surface topography and composition of a wide range of materials.

Sample Preparation for Electron Microscopy

Proper sample preparation is crucial for obtaining high-quality electron microscopy images. The specific preparation techniques used depend on the type of electron microscope and the nature of the sample.

TEM Sample Preparation

For TEM, samples must be thin enough for electrons to pass through. Biological samples typically need to be embedded in resin, sectioned into ultrathin slices (50-100 nm thick) using an ultramicrotome, and then placed onto a support grid. For materials science applications, samples may be prepared using techniques like ion milling or focused ion beam milling to achieve the required thinness.

Staining with heavy metal salts, such as uranyl acetate and lead citrate, is often used to enhance the contrast in TEM images, especially for biological samples. These stains selectively bind to certain structures, increasing their electron density and making them more visible in the final image.

SEM Sample Preparation

SEM samples generally need to be dry, clean, and conductive. Biological samples often require fixation, dehydration, and critical point drying to preserve their structure and prevent sample distortion. Non-conductive samples, such as biological specimens or insulating materials, may require coating with a thin layer of metal, such as gold or platinum, to improve their conductivity and reduce charging effects during imaging.

Limitations of Electron Microscopy

While electron microscopy offers many advantages in terms of resolution and imaging capabilities, there are some limitations to consider:

  1. Sample Damage: The high-energy electron beam can cause damage to delicate samples, particularly biological specimens. This damage may result in artifacts or distortions in the final image.
  2. Vacuum Requirements: Electron microscopes require a vacuum to operate, which can limit the types of samples that can be studied and may require special sample preparation techniques.
  3. Cost and Accessibility: Electron microscopes are expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate. They also require skilled personnel to operate and interpret the resulting images.
  4. Limited Field of View: Due to the high magnification capabilities of electron microscopes, the field of view is typically much smaller than that of light microscopes, which can make it challenging to locate specific regions of interest
  5. Sample Thickness: In TEM, samples must be extremely thin to allow electrons to pass through. This can be a challenging and time-consuming process, particularly for materials that are difficult to section or prone to damage during sample preparation.
  6. Two-dimensional Images: Although recent advancements have made it possible to obtain three-dimensional information using electron microscopy, conventional TEM and SEM imaging techniques primarily generate two-dimensional images. This can make it difficult to visualize complex three-dimensional structures within a sample.


Electron microscopy is a powerful imaging technique that offers many advantages in terms of resolution and the ability to study a wide range of samples. However, it also comes with several limitations, such as the potential for sample damage, the need for specialized sample preparation techniques, and the requirement for skilled operators. By understanding the principles, sample preparation requirements, and limitations of electron microscopy, researchers can make informed decisions about whether this technique is appropriate for their specific needs and how best to utilize it in their work.

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