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A long-standing goal of electron microscopy has been the high-resolution characterization of specimens in their native environment. However, electron optics require high vacuum to maintain an unscattered and focused probe, a challenge for specimens requiring atmospheric or liquid environments. Here, we use an electron-transparent window at the base of a scanning electron microscope’s objective lens to separate column vacuum from the specimen, enabling imaging under ambient conditions, without a specimen vacuum chamber. We demonstrate in-air imaging of specimens at nanoscale resolution using backscattered scanning electron microscopy (airSEM) and scanning transmission electron microscopy. We explore resolution and contrast using Monte Carlo simulations and analytical models. We find that nanometer-scale resolution can be obtained at gas path lengths up to 400 μm, although contrast drops with increasing gas path length. As the electron-transparent window scatters considerably more than gas at our operating conditions, we observe that the densities and thicknesses of the electron-transparent window are the dominant limiting factors for image contrast at lower operating voltages. By enabling a variety of detector configurations, the airSEM is applicable to a wide range of environmental experiments including the imaging of hydrated biological specimens and in situ chemical and electrochemical processes.
In situ scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) through liquids is a promising approach for exploring biological and materials processes. However, options for in situ chemical identification are limited: X-ray analysis is precluded because the liquid cell holder shadows the detector and electron energy-loss spectroscopy (EELS) is degraded by multiple scattering events in thick layers. Here, we explore the limits of EELS in the study of chemical reactions in their native environments in real time and on the nanometer scale. The determination of the local electron density, optical gap, and thickness of the liquid layer by valence EELS is demonstrated. By comparing theoretical and experimental plasmon energies, we find that liquids appear to follow the free-electron model that has been previously established for solids. Signals at energies below the optical gap and plasmon energy of the liquid provide a high signal-to-background ratio regime as demonstrated for LiFePO4 in an aqueous solution. The potential for the use of valence EELS to understand in situ STEM reactions is demonstrated for beam-induced deposition of metallic copper: as copper clusters grow, EELS develops low-loss peaks corresponding to metallic copper. From these techniques, in situ imaging and valence EELS offer insights into the local electronic structure of nanoparticles and chemical reactions.
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