Scanning Electron Microscopes – Case Study

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Swansea University’s new Science and Innovation Bay Campus will include the new materials engineering research facilities within the Engineering Manufacturing Centre, based in the College of Engineering’s ‘Engineering East’ building. The Engineering Manufacturing Centre (EMC) has been part funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.


The materials research laboratories within the EMC will be home to the brand new multimillion-pound Advanced Imaging of Materials (AIM) facility. Equipment includes a suite of high resolution scanning electron microscopes, a focussed ion beam SEM, a correlated optical microscopy suite, TEM and X-Ray imaging suite.


A scanning electron microscope (SEM) produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with atoms in the sample, producing various signals (both electrons and photons) which contain information about the sample's surface topography and composition.

The high resolution SEMs in the facility will allow observation of fine detail and can image and analyse materials at the nanometer scale.

The focussed Ion beam scanning electron microscope (FIBSEM) takes this one step further by allowing these features to be viewed in three dimensions at the same high resolution. This is achieved by simultaneously imaging and removing material with a nanometer width beam of ions to reveal the underlying structure. This capability will be directly linked to data generated by X-Ray tomography, allowing precious samples to be analysed via a non-destructive process.

In addition to imaging, the equipment will allow researchers and industrialists to probe the chemistry and structure of materials in both two and three dimensions using techniques such as Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS) and Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD). EDS uses X-Rays emitted from the sample after electron bombardment to map composition changes, whilst EBSD takes advantage of structurally sensitive electron interactions to map changes in the crystal structure. This will permit phase identification, strain measurement and defect detection at the nanometer scale.

Users will also be able to probe the photoelectric properties of materials (critical to the success of photovoltaic and thermoelectric materials) via cathodoluminescence detection and characterise the oxidation state of materials at sub-nanometer resolution (critical to corrosion) via electron energy loss spectrometry. 

The new SEM suite is complimented by a comprehensive optical suite capable of imaging from meters to microns. Crucially, features on samples viewed in the optical suite can be directly transferred to the electron microscopes providing Wales with a world leading capability in correlative microscopy. This will provide a view across a whole range of length scales for a wide range of different materials from the biological to metallurgical.

AIM’s open access policy will ensure that industrial and academic partners will be able to collaborate with Swansea University, with access to cutting edge facilities as well as the academic and technical expertise in the team.  

Applications of the suite could include:

  • Product development
  • Failure analysis
  • Process optimisation

Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, Co-Director of the Advanced Imaging of Materials facility, said “We are thrilled with this investment from the Engineering Manufacturing Centre and the European Regional Development Fund. This has allowed us to update our facilities to be able to offer a far more comprehensive, state-of-the-art imaging suite, to be able to increase our research capabilities, and increase our engagement with industry partners through new R&D collaborations. For example this investment has already helped us to lever £2.5M of funding from the UK government via the engineering and physical sciences research council (EPSRC)”. 

The College of Engineering:  Swansea University continues to maintain its position as one of the top universities in the UK for Engineering. 

The Bay Campus’ extensive Engineering Quarter is designed to capitalise on the College of Engineering’s research expertise and its collaboration with major companies, including Rolls-Royce and Tata Steel. 

The Engineering Quarter features purpose built facilities for students, staff and businesses, allowing for the benefits of co-location, enabling applied research, an accelerated innovation pathway and employment opportunities. Visit


Ancient Egyptian mummified cat using x-ray microCT to reveal the damaged skull beneath the wrappings.

Scanned cat





A scanned viper.

Scanned viper





Bird skull image using x-ray imaging.

Scanned bird skull





Radius bone for the human remains recovered from the Mary Rose.

Scanned Mary Rose bone





Porosity network visualised within coke via x-ray imaging for the steel industry. 

Scanned coke