Tables for
Volume C
Mathematical, physical and chemical tables
Edited by E. Prince

International Tables for Crystallography (2006). Vol. C, ch. 3.5, pp. 172-173

Section Final thinning by argon-ion etching

N. J. Tighe,a J. R. Fryerb and H. M. Flowerc

a42 Lema Lane, Palm Coast, FL 32137-2417, USA,bDepartment of Chemistry, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, and cDepartment of Metallurgy, Imperial College, London SW7, England Final thinning by argon-ion etching

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Argon-ion bombardment or sputter etching is the simplest method for the final thinning of electron-microscope specimens. The application of the technique to ceramics and minerals was demonstrated in the early and mid-1960's with an apparatus commercialized by Paulus & Reverchon (1961[link]; Tighe & Hyman, 1968[link]) or similar designs (Bach, 1964[link]; Drum, 1965[link]). Since that time, numerous commercial instruments have been developed and are available in most electron-microscope laboratories.

The schematics in Fig.[link] show two types of arrangement of the instruments. There are two ion sources for etching from both sides of a specimen, a specimen holder that can be rotated, a viewing port, and a vacuum system. In the instrument in Fig.[link], the ion sources tilt instead of the specimen holder and an airlock system is used for sample exchange and for monitoring the sample during thinning. The new instruments are relatively trouble free and simple to use compared with the first-generation instruments. The ion sources operate at 4 to 10 kV with variable current to control desired thinning rate and the amount of specimen damage. Thinning rates of 1 µm h−1 per ion source are average for normal specimens. The sputtering rates depend also on the angle of tilt (Fig.[link] ) with respect to the ion beam. Faster rates cause more specimen heating and greater ion damage.


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The two types of arrangement for final thinning by argon-ion etching. (a) The system of Paulus & Reverchon (1961[link]) with fixed ion sources, made by Alba. (b) The system of Swann with movable ion sources and an airlock for specimen viewing (drawing courtesy of Gatan, Inc.).


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Dependence of sputtering rate on the angle of tilt.

The Dual Ion Mill system has two chambers such as the one shown in Fig.[link] (Gatan Inc.). The chambers function independently, so that two specimens can be thinned simultaneously. The sample holder is raised through an airlock to the observation window at intervals in order to monitor the thinning process. A special beam detector can be used to stop the operation when the specimen perforates.

The specially designed Precision Ion Polishing System `PIPS™' provides precise control over the specimen thinning area and is a dedicated low-angle instrument with a high thinning rate (Alani & Swann, 1992[link]). The ion beams can be adjusted individually to specific angles, and can be switched on and off regularly during the thinning process. Additionally, the beams can be oriented with respect to specific line features of the sample to preserve edge detail, for example, in a stacked sample (Alani, Harper & Swann, 1992[link]). Gases other than argon can be used for special etching conditions.

Ionic bombardment produces uniquely etched surfaces that are easily recognized in light and electron micrographs. With stationary specimens, closely spaced grooves and ridges are etched parallel to the direction of beam impingement. When the specimen is rotated slowly, these ridges are smoothed and an undulating orange-peel surface is produced. The severity of etching decreases when the angle of incidence to the ion beam is decreased to near grazing angles but uneven etching is never eliminated. The orange-peel texture is randomly located with respect to grain boundaries, dislocations, and other types of interfaces found in the thin foils. The severity of the orange-peel texture increases with bombardment time.

Subsurface ion damage occurs and is imaged as spotty black-dot contrast that is typical of point-defect clusters. The presence of the ion damage affects experiments that involve heating of the thin foil but is otherwise accepted as an artefact of the process. In materials such as silicon, the ion damage is sufficient to cause vitrification of the specimen at or near the surface. The argon that is implanted in specimens can be detected with the element-analysis systems.

One troublesome artefact of the ion-thinning process is the surface contamination that is produced by sputtering from tantalum or molybdenum or stainless steel parts of the specimen holder and the cathode. Debris may interfere with the analysis. The sputter debris is frequently located along interfaces of cracks and pores and adds to the contrast effects. Additional contamination occurs during one-sided thinning. The sputter debris adheres to the non-thinning side and must be removed by light-ion etching at the end of the thinning process.


Alani, R., Harper, R. G. & Swann, P. R. (1992). Ion thinning of TEM cross sections under beam switching control. Proc. EMSA, pp. 394–395. Baton Rouge: Claitor.
Alani, R. & Swann, P. R. (1992). Precision ion polishing system – a new instrument for TEM specimen preparation of materials. Mater. Res. Soc. Symp. 254, 43–63.
Bach, H. (1964). Elektronenmikroskopische Durchstrahlungsaufnahmen und Feinbereichselektronenbeugung an Al2O3 Keramik. BOSCH Techn. Ber. 1, 10–13.
Drum, C. M. (1965). Electron microscopy of dislocations and other defects in sapphire and in silicon carbide thinned by sputtering. Phys. Status Solidi, 9, 635–642.
Paulus, M. & Reverchon, F. (1961). Dispositif de bombardement inonique pour préparations micrographiques. J. Phys. Radium, 22, 103A–107A.
Tighe, N. J. & Hyman, A. (1968). Transmission electron microscopy of alumina ceramics. In Anisotropy in single crystal refractory compounds, Vol. 2, edited by E. W. Vahldick & S. A. Mersol. New York: Plenum.

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