In 1925, P. Auger first observed the so-called Auger electrons in a Wilson cloud chamber. He explained this occurrence as being due to a radiationless transition in atoms excited by a primary x-ray photon source. In 1953, Lander first pointed out that Auger electrons arising from solid samples can be detected in the energy distribution curve of secondary electrons from surfaces subjected to electron bombardment. Moreover, low-energy Auger electrons (∼1 keV kinetic energy) can escape from only the first several atomic layers of a surface since they are strongly absorbed by even a monolayer of atoms. Thus Auger electron spectroscopy (AES) possesses high surface sensitivity. This is one characteristic that makes AES very useful for the study of thin films. For such applications, an important development in AES occurred when Harris showed that the sensitivity of the detection of Auger electrons can be improved by differentiating the electron energy distribution curve with respect to the energy. Furthermore, Weber and Johnson demonstrated that, provided the Auger line profile does not change, the peak-to-peak height in the differentiated energy distribution curves is proportional to the Auger current in the peak. Therefore, in addition to its surface sensitivity, AES also can be used for quantitative studies of thin films.
Like AES, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) is a surface-sensitive technique that uses the energy distribution of electrons ejected from a thin film for quantitative analysis. However, in many ways the information provided by AES and XPS is complementary.