EMS Technical Data Sheets

Silver as a Removable Coating for Scanning
Electron Microscopy

Sputter Coaters

Acknowledgement: The following abstract and method results (introduction only) is reproduced by kind permission of A.A. Mills, Scanning Microscopy, Vol. 2, No.3, 1988 (Pages 1265-1271)


A thin film of silver, applied by sputtering or vacuum evaporation, provides an excellent conformal conductive coating for scanning electron microscopy of insulating specimens. When no longer required it is easily removed with Farmer's Reducer - a dilute aqueous solution of potassium ferricyanide and sodium thiosulphate.

No damage was apparent to fine structure in the calcite matrix of ostracode shells, or to other biological tissues. No problems have been encountered with grain in the silver film at magnifications up to x15,000, or in the storage of coated specimens in a desiccator for periods exceeding six months.


Many specimens for which scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is invaluable are electrical insulators, for example microfossils and dried biological preparations. To promote the emission of secondary electrons, and to prevent charging of the surface (with consequent repulsion of bath incoming and secondary electrons) it is usual to coat such specimens with a very thin layer of metal.

Nowadays gold (sometimes over a thin undercoat of carbon) is commonly employed for the majority of work, although refractory metals have been recommended for the very highest magnifications. These coatings are normally applied by sputtering in a glow discharge, for this technique is omnidirectional and tends to give a fine-grained deposit, while the apparatus required is comparatively simple and inexpensive since a high vacuum is not required.

An alternative, older technique (which also allows aluminum to be deposited) is evaporation of a molten bead of the chosen metal in a high vacuum. The inherent directionality of this method means that specimens must generally be moved continuously by a rotating/nodding table.

Problems arise when it is desired to return a specimen to its original uncoated condition, for example to allow successive treatments or because too thick a coating has been accidentally applied. Even specimens which have been correctly coated may be rendered unsuitable for subsequent optical and analytical examination, due to the highly reflective nature of the gold film and its interference with x-ray emission. For these reasons there is frequently a reluctance to allow SEM examination of certain material, eg type specimens and archaeological artifacts.

Removal of Gold and Aluminum Coatings

Attempts have therefore been made to remove the metal film by suitable reagents, which must obviously not attack the substrate. It is well-known that gold is recovered from siliceous ores by complexing with aqueous cyanide under oxidizing (aerobic) conditions, and two groups have independently utilized this reaction.

A major obstacle is the highly toxic nature of cyanides, necessitating efficient fume hoods and a high degree of supervision and control unwanted in most laboratories. A less objectionable reagent is ferric chloride in alcohol, but it requires some six hours on a gold/palladium film from a smooth PTFE surface, and appears likely to attach many specimens. Mercury amalgamates gold, but does not remove it completely and adds its own background.

Aluminum dissolves in weak acids and alkalies with the evolution of hydrogen. Sylvester and Bradley therefore hoped that soaking in a dilute solution of sodium hydroxide would enable this metal to be removed from calcite microfossils without damage to the matrix. Unfortunately, they were later obliged to acknowledge that insufficiently careful exposure to alkali could result in dissolution of fine structure.

Advantages of a silver film

Silver would appear to have much to commend it as an alternative to gold. It is the most conductive metal known, possesses a high secondary electron coefficient, and is readily applied by sputtering or evaporation to follow irregular contours better than any other material.

Unlike gold, its x-ray emission lines are wellseparated from those of the biologically important sulphur and phosphorus. Its cost is only a fraction of gold and the platinum metals. The unique applicability of silver to photography has resulted in extensive research upon its complex ions and their solubility.

Quite early in the history of photography it was found that a dark, over-exposed negative could be rendered less opaque (‘reduced’) by aqueous oxidizing agents in the presence of sodium thiosulphate. The metallic silver forms the Ag ion, which is promptly complexed by the thiosulphate so that still more silver dissolves. No gas is evolved. The negative would be removed from the reagent and thoroughly washed when a sufficient amount of silver had been abstracted from the image.

Materials and methods

One of the mildest of these ‘reducers’ is that formulated by Farmer in 1884, employing very dilute potassium ferricyanide as the oxidizing agent. As paper, albumen and gelatine were apparently unaffected, it was thought that this reagent might well prove suitable for dissolving silver from a variety of coated specimens without damage to the matrix. Ferricyanides do not possess the extreme toxicity of the simple cyanides, and may be purchased and used in the same way as ordinary laboratory and photographic chemicals.

Farmer’s Reducer - the formulation used is based on that given by Jacobson:

Solution A

25g sodium thiosulphate (crystals)
250ml water
2 drops of Kodak ‘Photoflo’

Solution B

10g potassium ferricyanide
100ml water

These solutions appear to be stable indefinitely at room temperature if kept in securely stoppered amber glass bottles. Immediately before use, the following mixture is to be prepared:

50ml water
50ml Solution A
3ml Solution B

It was found that the resulting pale yellow solution had a pH of about 5, the same as the CO2- equilibrated tap water used for its preparation. It was unstable, losing activity and color after about two hours at room temperature.

A neutral mixture may be prepared by substituting pH 7 phosphate buffer (conveniently prepared from a BDH tablet) for water in the above dilution. However, all the tests to be described in the paper were conducted with the ordinary solution prepared with tap water.

It should be noted that calcium carbonate has a significant solubility in water. In nature, calcite microfossils are protected against percolating groundwater by the sacrificial dissolution of fossils above and around them. Once removed from this environment to the laboratory, such fossils should presumably be washed only with distilled water that has been allowed to stand in contact with CaCO (eg marble chips) and filtered. Otherwise needles and similar fine structures will be particularly at risk.

This equilibrated ‘hard’ water could be used to prepare and dilute the Farmer’s Reducer. A very brief final rinse in distilled water is probably permissible; the common practice of ‘soaking overnight’ is not.

Results — silver mirror on glass

A silver mirror was made by evaporating the metal on to a microscope slide cleaned with chromic acid. Sufficient was deposited to give a semi-transparent film: silvery when placed on a dark background and viewed by reflected light, but behaving as a blue filter when examined by transmitted light.

The coated glass slide was immersed in freshlyprepared Farmer’s Reducer. The silver was gently dissolved in a controlled manner, as shown by the gradual and uniform loss of color in transmitted light, until none remained after three minutes. No gas was evolved. It was decided that a 10 minute immersion should allow an ample margin to deal with specimens with convoluted surfaces. The reagent had no effect upon gold films. Alloys of silver and gold have not been investigated.

Comparative Sputter Data

Iridium and other materials

Samples were coated using a K575X Sputter Coater and were examined using a Hitachi S-5200 Field Emission SEM.

Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 1
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 2
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 3
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    10 seconds    10 seconds    10 seconds  
 Current Used:    20 mA    20 mA    20 mA  
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 4
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 5
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 6
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    10 seconds    10 seconds    10 seconds  
 Current Used:    20 mA    20 mA    20 mA  
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 7
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 8
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 9
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    30 seconds    30 seconds    30 seconds  
 Current Used:    100 mA    100 mA    100 mA  
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 10
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 11
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 12
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    10 seconds    10 seconds    10 seconds  
 Current Used:    20 mA    20 mA    20 mA  
 No Coating  
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 13
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 14
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 15
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    N/A    N/A    N/A  
 Current Used:    N/A    N/A    N/A  
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 16
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 17
Emitech K-575X Sputter Coater sample 18
 Magnification:    15,000 X    100,000 X    300,000 X  
 Coating Time:    N/A    N/A    N/A  
 Current Used:    N/A    N/A    N/A  


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