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Low-Energy Electron Diffraction (LEED) in Surface Structure Analysis

Key Takeaways

  • LEED involves directing a low-energy electron beam at crystalline surfaces to create diffraction patterns, revealing surface structures.

  • Electrons used in LEED have wavelengths similar to the spacing between atoms, allowing them to be elastically scattered by surface atoms.

  • LEED is particularly sensitive to surface structures, making it ideal for studying reconstructions, adsorption sites, and thin films. LEED is vital in semiconductor manufacturing for surface analysis and material development.

 Low energy electron diffraction instrument

Low-energy electron diffraction instrument

Low-Energy Electron Diffraction (LEED) is a method used to characterize the surface structure of single-crystalline materials. This technique directs a focused beam of electrons, with energies ranging from 30 to 200 electron volts, toward a material. The pattern of electrons that are diffracted in this process can be observed as distinct spots on a fluorescent screen.

The Low-Energy Electron Diffraction (LEED) Process 



Set up the LEED system

Assemble the LEED apparatus, including the electron gun, fluorescent screen, and detectors.

Calibrate the electron gun

Calibrate the electron gun to emit electrons in the desired energy range (typically 20-200 eV).

Electron-surface interaction

A beam of low-energy electrons is directed at a crystalline surface. These electrons have wavelengths comparable to the spacing between atoms in a solid, making them suitable for diffraction.

Diffraction process

As the electrons hit the surface, they interact with the periodic array of atoms. This interaction results in the scattering or diffraction of the electrons. Due to the wave nature of electrons (as described by quantum mechanics), these scattered waves interfere with each other constructively and destructively, leading to a diffraction pattern.

Constructive interference

Constructive interference occurs at specific angles, depending on the arrangement of atoms on the surface and the energy of the electrons. This results in distinct bright spots on a detector screen, typically a fluorescent screen.

Observation, collection, and interpretation

Observe the diffraction pattern formed by the electrons on the fluorescent screen and record the positions and intensities of the diffracted spots or beams. Analyze the recorded data, either qualitatively for surface symmetry or quantitatively for atomic positions.

Electron Behavior and Diffraction

When low-energy electrons interact with the surface atoms of the material, they are diffracted, creating a pattern of spots on a fluorescent screen positioned above the sample. The electrons used have a wavelength between 2.7 and 0.87 Ångströms, similar to the distances between atoms. Consequently, these electrons can be elastically scattered by the atoms in the top layers of the sample with ease. 

The shallow penetration depth makes Low-Energy Electron Diffraction (LEED) particularly sensitive to surface structures, in contrast to X-ray diffraction, which reveals more about the bulk structure of a crystal due to its longer mean free path of approximate micrometers.

When electrons hit a sample surface, they may undergo various interaction processes. An electron could be absorbed or scattered inelastically, exciting an electron from a single atom. This excitation could lead to the emission of Auger-electrons or self-ionization, or it might excite the collective electron gas, known as plasmon excitation, or even the excitation of phonons. Alternatively, the scattering could be elastic, leading to the superposition of different electron waves, a phenomenon commonly referred to as electron diffraction. 

Applying LEED

Low-energy electron diffraction can be utilized in two distinct manners:

  1. Qualitative Analysis: In this approach, the diffraction pattern is captured and examined. By analyzing the positions of the spots in the pattern, information regarding the symmetry of the surface structure is gained. When an adsorbate is present on the surface, this qualitative method can reveal details about the size and rotational alignment of the adsorbate's unit cell in relation to the unit cell of the substrate.
  2. Quantitative Analysis: This method involves recording the intensities of the diffracted beams as a function of the energy of the incident electron beam. The resulting data is plotted to produce what are known as I–V curves. These curves, when compared with theoretical models, can provide precise information about the positions of atoms on the surface in question. This quantitative approach offers a more in-depth and accurate analysis of the surface structure.

LEED is extremely surface-sensitive because low-energy electrons only penetrate a few atomic layers into the material. This makes LEED an excellent tool for studying surface reconstructions, adsorption sites, and thin films.

Role of Computational Methods

Modern LEED analysis often involves sophisticated computational methods to simulate and interpret diffraction patterns. These calculations can help in constructing a detailed model of the surface structure that best fits the experimental data.


LEED (Low-Energy Electron Diffraction) and RHEED (Reflection High-Energy Electron Diffraction) are both techniques for analyzing material structure. They differ in terms of their energy ranges, incidence angles, and typical applications. LEED is more suited for surface studies of bulk materials with its low-energy, perpendicular electron beam, while RHEED is better for investigating thin films and surface growth processes due to its high-energy, grazing incidence approach.




Energy Range

20 to 200 electron volts (eV)

8 to 20 kilo electron volts (keV)

Incidence Angle

Perpendicular or nearly perpendicular to the surface

Very low angle (grazing incidence) to the surface

Diffraction Pattern

Pattern of spots, typically on a fluorescent screen

Elongated streaks or arcs


Surface structure analysis of bulk materials, surface chemistry and physics

Thin film growth and epitaxy, in-situ monitoring during MBE

Relevance in Semiconductor Manufacturing

In semiconductor manufacturing, the control and understanding of surface structures are paramount. LEED plays a vital role in this industry by providing precise information about the surface arrangement of semiconductor materials.

  • Semiconductor devices often involve the growth of thin films and complex layered structures on a nanometric scale. LEED is used to monitor the quality of these surfaces, ensuring the layers are correctly oriented and free from defects. This is crucial for the fabrication of high-performance semiconductor devices.

  • Additionally, LEED is employed in the development of new semiconductor materials and in the optimization of surface treatments and cleaning procedures. The ability to analyze and control the surface structure of semiconductor materials at the atomic level has been a key factor in semiconductor technology.

As we’ve discussed, low-energy electron diffraction (LEED) is an important tool in semiconductor analysis and manufacturing. Once you’ve created your IC, work with Allegro X Advanced Package Designer to package your final product. With Allegro X, you can experience unparalleled efficiency and precision in IC packaging design. 

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