Purchasing a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)

Who wouldn’t want an electron microscope? They’re phenomenal tools capable of imaging the smallest imaginable specimens, from viruses to atoms.

But getting your hands on one isn’t quite as simple as swinging by the local hardware store. After all, phenomenal tools come with phenomenal prices and equally phenomenal problems.

When the stakes are so high, you need to do your homework. To get you started, here’s some of the questions you should ask.

What does a SEM cost?

As you’re probably aware, scanning electron microscopes don’t come cheap. Prices can range from tens of thousands of dollars all the way up to tens of millions.

Beyond that, you have the setup and running costs. Electron microscopes need a stable operating environment and adequate sample preparation facilities, not to mention maintenance, servicing and training costs.

That said, electron microscope technology has come a long way and they’re now more affordable and accessible than ever. There’s even a growing range of tabletop SEMs that provide a compact and portable option with only a small reduction in image resolution.

Do you have a suitable working environment?

Electron microscopes are delicate pieces of equipment. They are extremely sensitive to any number of environmental factors.

To get the best out of your SEM, you’ll need to account for all of them.

Depending on your model and workspace, you may have to have to set up environmental controls for everything from vibrations and acoustic noise, all the way to temperature, pressure, humidity and electromagnetic interference from any nearby equipment or machinery.

For more sensitive and higher resolution microscopes, you might need some rather expensive dampening equipment to get the results you want.

Who will operate your SEM?

It may seem obvious, but you’ll need staff and technicians who actually know how to use your SEM.

Electron microscope technicians require professional training simply in order to operate the equipment, let alone get the best results. Even the preparation of samples requires specialised machinery and detailed knowledge of the equipment and specimens. 

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)

If your users are inexperienced or untrained, they may even damage your SEM through improper use. So, it’s important that you find a microscope that you and your organisation have the capability to handle properly.

Fortunately, modern electron microscopes come with increasingly easy-to-use features and software. Tabletop models in particular are often designed with accessibility and convenience in mind, so they might be a better fit for less well-endowed institutions.

Have you considered maintenance and operating costs?

An electron microscope is a long-term investment. To make the most of it, you’ll need to keep it up and running while you avoid any unnecessary downtime.

This means planning both for routine maintenance and professional servicing, which can take days. You’ll also need to ensure that parts will be available in case anything breaks and that your suppliers are reputable, reliable – and likely to remain solvent.

Consider also your general running costs – power, sample preparation, testing, labour fees for technicians (both internal and external), cleaning, downtime, realignment and all the other concerns that contribute to a working SEM.

Many an electron microscope has found itself on the second-hand market when the original budget didn’t account for the operating costs.

Clearly, purchasing an electron microscope is not a decision to be taken lightly. In the right hands, the technical wizardry of a SEM will produce stunning images, but you’ll need thorough preparation and considerable resources to use it to its full potential.

Previous article How to perform a faecal worm egg count with a microscope