Samples must be solid and they must fit into the microscope chamber. Maximum size in horizontal dimensions is usually on the order of 10 cm, vertical dimensions are generally much more limited and rarely exceed 40 mm. For most instruments samples must be stable in a vacuum on the order of 10-5 - 10-6 torr. Samples likely to outgas at low pressures (rocks saturated with hydrocarbons, "wet" samples such as coal, organic materials or swelling clays, and samples likely to decrepitate at low pressure) are unsuitable for examination in conventional SEM's. However, "low vacuum" and "environmental" SEMs also exist, and many of these types of samples can be successfully examined in these specialized instruments. EDS detectors on SEM's cannot detect very light elements (H, He, and Li), and many instruments cannot detect elements with atomic numbers less than 11 (Na). Most SEMs use a solid state x-ray detector (EDS), and while these detectors are very fast and easy to utilize, they have relatively poor energy resolution and sensitivity to elements present in low abundances when compared to wavelength dispersive x-ray detectors (WDS) on most electron probe microanalyzers (EPMA). An electrically conductive coating must be applied to electrically insulating samples for study in conventional SEM's, unless the instrument is capable of operation in a low vacuum mode.

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