In electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) a material is exposed to a beam of electrons with a known, narrow range of kinetic energies. Some of the electrons will undergo inelastic scattering, which means that they lose energy and have their paths slightly and randomly deflected. The amount of energy loss can be measured via an electron spectrometer and interpreted in terms of what caused the energy loss. Inelastic interactions include phonon excitations, inter and intra band transitions, plasmon excitations, inner shell ionizations, and Čerenkov radiation. The inner-shell ionizations are particularly useful for detecting the elemental components of a material. For example, one might find that a larger-than-expected number of electrons comes through the material with 285 eV (electron volts, a unit of energy) less energy than they had when they entered the material. It so happens that this is about the amount of energy needed to remove an inner-shell electron from a carbon atom. This can be taken as evidence that there is a significant amount of carbon in the part of the material that is being hit by the electron beam. With some care, and looking at a wide range of energy losses, one can determine the types of atoms, and the numbers of atoms of each type, being struck by the beam. The scattering angle (that is, the amount that the electron's path is deflected) can also be measured, giving information about the dispersion relation of whatever material excitation caused the inelastic scattering.
The technique was developed by James Hillier and RF Baker in the mid 1940s but was not widely used over the next 50 years, only becoming more widespread in research in the 1990s due to advances in microscope instrumentation and vacuum technology. With modern instrumentation becoming widely available in laboratories worldwide, the technical and scientific developments from the mid 1990s have been rapid. The technique is able to take advantage of modern aberration-corrected probe forming systems to attain spatial resolutions down to ~0.1 nm, while with a monochromated electron source and/or careful deconvolution the energy resolution can be 100 meV or better. This has enabled detailed measurements of the atomic and electronic properties of single columns of atoms, and in a few cases, of single atoms.
EELS and EDX
EELS is often spoken of as being complementary to energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (variously called EDX, EDS, XEDS, etc.), which is another common spectroscopy technique available on many electron microscopes. EDX excels at identifying the atomic composition of a material, is quite easy to use, and is particularly sensitive to heavier elements. EELS has historically been a more difficult technique but is in principle capable of measuring atomic composition, chemical bonding, valence and conduction band electronic properties, surface properties, and element-specific pair distance distribution functions. EELS tends to work best at relatively low atomic numbers, where the excitation edges tend to be sharp, well-defined, and at experimentally accessible energy losses (the signal being very weak beyond about 3 keV energy loss). EELS is perhaps best developed for the elements ranging from carbon through the 3d transition metals (from scandium to zinc). For carbon, an experienced spectroscopist can tell at a glance the differences among diamond, graphite, amorphous carbon, and "mineral" carbon (such as the carbon appearing in carbonates). The spectra of 3d transition metals can be analyzed to identify the oxidation states of the atoms. Cu(I), for instance, has a different so-called "white-line" intensity ratio than does Cu(II). This ability to "fingerprint" different forms of the same element is a strong advantage of EELS over EDX. The difference is mainly due to the difference in energy resolution between the two techniques (~1 eV or better for EELS, perhaps a few times ten eV for EDX).
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