SEM observation of a specimen cross section can provide important information for research and development as well as failure analysis. In most cases, surface observation alone cannot provide information concerning the cross sectional structure of granular materials, layered materials, fibrous materials, and powders. Preparing highly-polished cross sections of these materials is both a science and an art.
Typically, a cross section is prepared using mechanical means like conventional mechanical polishing methods or a microtome. The sample is first embedded in a holder or device, and then polished to achieve a flat cross section. In some cases, a staining procedure is used to highlight a specific component of the sample. Such methods can be lengthy procedures that require a great deal of skill, and can introduce artifacts into soft materials, deform the material around voids, or compress layers of soft and hard materials in composite samples. Mechanical polishing can miss fine details such as the presence of hairline cracks, and present a challenge to water-soluble phases.