Fast, Automated Imaging with Tabletop SEM - An Interview with Emile Asselbergs

Interview by Will Soutter

Phenom-World recently launched the new generation of their flagship Phenom benchtop SEMs. AZoNano's Will Soutter spoke to Phenom-World CEO Emile Asselbergs about the new Phenom, and the company's heritage and philosophy.

WS: You recently launched the “Next Generation” of your Phenom series of SEMs – what are the main changes to the products with this new release?

EA: At Phenom World, we are always working on making the Phenom better – better images, faster response, more data, and also more user-friendly and productive. This new generation is a result of all the work we have been doing in these areas.

Some of the main improvements: We have improved the technology in the Phenom, so that we can make a nicer, crisper image, because we believe that our customers are always interested in seeing more and getting better images of their specimens. The images are also more detailed – the maximum magnification has gone up to 100,000 times. The image resolution is now guaranteed at 17 nanometers. With the “premium” version of the Phenom, we can guarantee a resolution better than 15 nanometers.

In addition, we have made the movement of the specimen more accurate, so it’s easier to navigate around the specimen. These improvements together represent a pretty big step forward. We figured this was worth a re-launch of the system, and to call this the third generation.

The Phenom Pro package - complete with computer system and automated analysis packages

WS: What features/experience do you aim to provide for users with the Phenom microscopes that they cannot get from other manufacturers?

EA: We want to amaze our customers with the speed at which they can get high-quality results. Ultimately, we aim to create an instrument that makes users go “wow”. So the time to results is a lot shorter than with any other SEM manufacturer. This has to do, by the way, with the fact that we don’t have to use an air lock, and we don’t have to vent the Phenom when you insert or remove a specimen, which makes the process a lot faster.

The other things we do to enhance this “wow” factor are things like the very good auto-focus and auto-contrast/brightness, and the design of the user interface.

Another unique feature the Phenom has is the level of integration with the energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry system. We fully integrate our own EDS system with the Phenom user interface, rather than using a 3rd party system, so we have full control over making it work, and making it easy to use.

Overall, we describe the design of the Phenom as worry-free, and always available. This covers everything, from the interface right down to the long-life electron source – we use a CeB6 source which means that in practice, you can go for around two years without a filament exchange.

WS: What are the differences and similarities between the different models in the Phenom range? Is there a large difference in performance between them?

EA: The “Pure” is our entry system, with 5 kV acceleration voltage and 20,000 times magnification. The “Pro” and “ProX” have higher acceleration voltages, and magnify up to 100,000 times. The ProX adds integrated EDS. The only difference with the premium Phenoms is that these are further tuned and tweaked in the factory, so they are the absolute top of the line – they can achieve 15 nm resolution.

For most customers, the 17 nm resolution you get from the standard instrument is more than good enough, so the premium model is really for the few customers who want the best of the best.

The EDS function of the Phenom ProX allows elemental mapping of a sample

WS: Can you tell us about the history of Phenom World and your relationship with FEI?

EA: It’s not a coincidence that we are based in the Eindhoven area. Philips Electron Optics started making electron microscopes in Eindhoven in 1948, which means people have been making electron microscopes here for 65 years. So there’s a pretty strong tradition of physicists who are good at building these instruments, and who enjoy it as well.

In the 1990’s , Philips and FEI started their cooperation, and shortly afterwards Philips sold the Electron Optics business to FEI. So you could say that a major part of the heritage of the FEI Company, as it exists today, originated with Philips. FEI’s innovation in electron optics systems, like the Titan and the DualBeams, is still done in Eindhoven today.

The Phenom was a project that FEI started around the beginning of this century. The research that produced the technical innovations in the Phenom was carried out in the Philips labs, and paid for by the FEI Company. In 2009, the Phenom part of the business was sold to two of FEI’s major suppliers – the NTS group in Eindhoven, and the Sioux software company – and that is the way our company came about. Currently, FEI still owns 19% of Phenom World, and NTS and Sioux both have 40.5%.

So we are very proud of our heritage and the heritage of the region we are based in – a lot of the history and knowledge base in the field of electron optics is concentrated in this area. I think other than Japan, it’s the main place to have produced so many successful electron optics products. And as I said this may not be a coincidence – the Eindhoven region was chosen last year to be officially the smartest region in the world!

It’s great to be in an area with such a huge knowledge base. Although our focus and out products are very different from FEI – tabletop instruments are very different from high end TEMs and so on – the fundamental physics and engineering that makes them work is not so different, and it is great to be able to share that knowledge and inspire one another.

Coffee mold imaged with the Phenom SEM

WS: SEM is a flexible tool that can be used in many different areas – what are the most exciting applications that your users have found for the Phenom range?

EA: That’s an interesting question. The images that our customers typically make with Phenom are highly practical. For instance, we found some mold in the coffee machine in our office. We were wondering what that would look like in close up – so we put it in a Phenom, and within one minute we had a very nice image of mold. That’s not scientific research – it’s very practical, and it’s also a way of making really beautiful images fast.

So it’s not what FEI does, for example – we aren’t looking at research into tomography of viruses, for example, or anything very advanced like that. Our customers are much more focused on quality control, and education, rather than deep research.

So for example, if a company wants to check the quality of the parts they make, and they take the sample to a lab where they can hire an SEM. The SEM might not work perfectly, or it might need servicing. They also need to find an operator, who might be on vacation, or ill, or too busy. So their feedback time could be maybe two weeks –just imagine what that does to the quality control process!

What we see is customers buying a Phenom and putting it very close to the production line, so that they don’t need to go to an outside lab, or hire an operator, and their response time is more like five minutes. That is where the major benefit of the Phenom lies, even though the images may not be the most exciting ones if the Phenom is imaging powders all day.

In education, however, the Phenom can be used to easily generate images that can grab students’ attention – you can look at butterfly wings, or insects, or other living things and ordinary things from the world around you, and they can be really breathtaking images that can capture the imagination.

This is why the new generation is such a massive improvement for our customers – 17nm resolution is way more than they would expect or even really need for this kind of tool, for the kind of applications we are talking about. So we can give them affordable, reliable imaging, with the fastest productivity, and we can get incredible images without having to worry about the complexities of using and maintaining a high-end SEM.

A butterfly wing imaged with the Phenom SEM

WS: Are there any features you’ve added to the Phenom that were inspired by customer feedback, that have allowed customers to use the Phenom in ways they weren’t able to before?

EA: One thing we did find, is that even though customers were really happy with the speed and imaging quality, until last year we did not have an EDS function, and that ruled out the Phenom for some people. This is because they didn’t only want to look at the sample, they also needed to know what it is made of, or to analyze quality in the chemical sense. So it was clear that we had to expand our capability in that area, and we added the EDS function as the first step in that process.

We do plan to expand on the automated applications we can offer as well. These extra functions come as part of the Phenom Pro package, which we ship with a dedicated computer with all the software preinstalled. We already offer the EDS measurement as a part of this, as well as the FiberMetrics package, which allows you to make automatic measurements on fiber samples.

We are looking at adding many more functions to the Pro Suite – things like specific measurements for particles – all sorts of application-specific measurements that we know our customers will love. These measurements will all still be just as automated and simple to use as the features we have today.

WS: Are there any further limitations or challenges for SEM as a technique that you would like to deal with in the future, or will you be focused more on incremental improvements?

EA: All the work of overcoming limitations in the technique is covered by FEI Company – they protect us from those difficulties in a way. They own that high end of the market, and our role is to follow, and make the technology available for everybody – make it easier to use, cheaper, and faster.

So we will focus on improving our platform, and making it available for more areas of study. For example, I think in the future you will see Phenom being used much more in pharmacy and cancer research. Not at the very cutting edge where FEI works, but some of the things with cryo-microscopy etc. that they are working on will be made available to a wider base of people through a Phenom. We will make that kind of research possible for all sorts of companies and smaller institutes, not just the few very top research facilities.

We are always working on making our images brighter, crisper, and sharper. We are working on accommodating more different types of specimens. We are working on bringing more automated measurement applications to the Phenom. That work never stops - those are the key areas we will always push forwards in.

We are growing fast, and we feel that the high-performance tabletop microscope market is very strong and growing fast as well. We have all this experience and heritage to draw on as I talked about, and we feel that we are very well placed in this field to keep on growing - it’s a very good market to be in.

Emile gives a demo of the Phenom system at Pittcon 2013. Video by AZoTV

About Emile Assenbergs

Emile Asselbergs graduated from the Technical University of Delft in Precision Mechanical Engineering. At Philips Electron Optics he was responsible for the design of the TEM goniometer and the Field Emission Accelerator. After a period of TEM and SEM sales in the UK, he worked at FEI in Hillsboro as engineering manager where the Small Dual Beam system was brought to life.

Back at FEI in the Netherlands, he was Development Manager TEM, starting the Titan with Cs corrector project.
After FEI, he moved to the NTS-Group -one of the investing contributors to the Phenom project- as director of two of their companies.

When NTS bought the Phenom business from FEI, Emile became CEO of Phenom-World, with the goal to rapidly become the top in table-top SEM.

 

Date Added: Oct 2, 2013 | Updated: Oct 2, 2013
Ask A Question

Do you have a question you'd like to ask regarding this article?

Leave your feedback
Submit