scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with atoms in the sample, producing various signals that can be detected and that contain information about the sample’s surface topography and composition. The electron beam is generally scanned in a raster scan pattern, and the beam’s position is combined with the detected signal to produce an image. SEM can achieve resolution better than 1 nanometer. Specimens can be observed in high vacuum, in low vacuum, and (in environmental SEM) in wet conditions.

The most common mode of detection is by secondary electrons emitted by atoms excited by the electron beam. The number of secondary electrons is a function of the angle between the surface and the beam. On a flat surface, the plume of secondary electrons is mostly contained by the sample, but on a tilted surface, the plume is partially exposed and more electrons are emitted. By scanning the sample and detecting the secondary electrons, an image displaying the tilt of the surface is created.

Source: Wikipedia