AFMs and SEMs both provide high resolution and advanced analytical information. An SEM scans a sample’s surface with a high-energy beam of electrons. The electrons interact with the atoms of the sample to produce signals that contain information about the sample’s composition, surface topography, electrical conductivity, and other properties, resulting in a two-dimensional image. SEMs provide better depth of field than traditional optical microscopes, and allow for faster identification and counting of samples on the nanoscale due to improvements in SEM stage automation.

An AFM uses a cantilevered probe to scan a specimen’s surface, producing a three-dimensional image of the sample. The AFM probe can image and manipulate atoms and structures on a variety of surfaces by sensing chemical interactions between the probe and the surface. AFMs allow for minimal effort in sample preparation and sample handling.

Thanks to improvements in SEM electron optics and vacuum design, researchers working with soft materials can use non-invasive sample preparation techniques. User-friendly software and controls allow SEMs to be used by lab professionals, not just trained microscopists or physicists.

Most of today’s AFMs are based on decades-old technology; improved resolution is needed, especially in the area of closed loop scanning. Another goal of AFM vendors: make the instruments more user-friendly so even non-professionals can use them. While SEM vendors say there is a need for higher resolution instruments, the main needs are software automation, sample stage design, and signal collection.

Despite the economic downturn, the market for AFMs and SEMs remained relatively strong in academia, biomedical, pharmaceutical, metallurgy, materials science, and energy markets. The industrial market for these instruments did fall slightly (as with most laboratory instruments), but many vendors noted growth within the academic and government markets, perhaps due to stimulus funding support for research.

According to a report by Future Markets, Inc., Rockville, Md., AFM, TEM, and SEM accounted for $376.3 million in revenues in 2009. Overall, vendors have a positive outlook on the AFM and SEM market sectors forecasting revenue growth to approximately $681.7 million by 2015, according to the report.

To view a full PDF of the AFM/SEM Specifications Guide found in the November/Decmeber issue of R&D Magazine, click here.

Companies Represented in the AFM/SEM Specifications Guide

Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 52, No. 7, December, 2010.