After understanding that an accelerated electron beam can have a very high resolving power, we then move on to see how one can use this electron beam in imaging technology. There are 3 types of electron microscopes, namely the transmission electron microscope (TEM), scanning electron microscope (SEM), and scanning tunneling microscope (STM). In this section, we will introduce the basic principle of TEM.

Fig. 4 shows a schematic outline of a TEM. A TEM contains four parts: electron source, electromagnetic lens system, sample holder, and imaging system.


Electron source

The electron source consists of a cathode and an anode. The cathode is a tungsten filament which emits electrons when being heated. A negative cap confines the electrons into a loosely focused beam (Fig. 5). The beam is then accelerated towards the specimen by the positive anode. Electrons at the rim of the beam will fall onto the anode while the others at the center will pass through the small hole of the anode. The electron source works like a cathode ray tube.

Electromagnetic lens system

After leaving the electron source, the electron beam is tightly focused using electromagnetic lens and metal apertures. The system only allows electrons within a small energy range to pass through, so the electrons in the electron beam will have a well-defined energy.


Magnetic Lens: Circular electro-magnets capable of generating a precise circular magnetic field. The field acts like an optical lens to focus the electrons.


Aperture: A thin disk with a small (2-100 micrometers) circular through-hole. It is used to restrict the electron beam and filter out unwanted electrons before hitting the specimen.

Sample holder

The sample holder is a platform equipped with a mechanical arm for holding the specimen and controlling its position.

Imaging system

The imaging system consists of another electromagnetic lens system and a screen. The electromagnetic lens system contains two lens systems, one for refocusing the electrons after they pass through the specimen, and the other for enlarging the image and projecting it onto the screen. The screen has a phosphorescent plate which glows when being hit by electrons. Image forms in a way similar to photography.

Working principle

TEM works like a slide projector. A projector shines a beam of light which transmits through the slide. The patterns painted on the slide only allow certain parts of the light beam to pass through. Thus the transmitted beam replicates the patterns on the slide, forming an enlarged image of the slide when falling on the screen.

TEMs work the same way except that they shine a beam of electrons (like the light in a slide projector) through the specimen (like the slide). However, in TEM, the transmission of electron beam is highly dependent on the properties of material being examined. Such properties include density, composition, etc. For example, porous material will allow more electrons to pass through while dense material will allow less. As a result, a specimen with a non-uniform density can be examined by this technique. Whatever part is transmitted is projected onto a phosphor screen for the user to see.

The following animation will help you to understand more about the principle and operation of a TEM:

Animation: Transmission Electron Microscope

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