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Benefits of Tabletop SEM in Pharmaceutical R&D

Pharmaceutical research and development are fundamentally concerned with the development of new drugs and the improvement of existing drugs. With new pathogens constantly emerging and the increasing resistance of these pathogens to existing drugs, the pharmaceuticals industry is facing a monumental challenge.

The impetus for continued investment in pharmaceutical R&D shows no sign of abating. For instance, in the United States, Global Markets Insights reports that member companies of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America association have collectively invested close to $1 trillion in the development of new drugs.

In the face of such unprecedented demand, the tabletop scanning electron microscope (tabletop SEM) will play a pivotal role in the rapid and efficient characterization of new drug treatments, providing insights into their interactions with human cells and their applications in complex therapies.

Characterization of Pharmaceutical Properties Using a Tabletop SEM

A pharmaceutical formulation comprises more than the active ingredient. In fact, it comprises a mixture of an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) and excipients (bulking agents, stabilizers, and coatings), resulting in the final product. These formulations must be optimized morphologically and chemically since factors such as homogeneity, texture, and particle size may affect the shelf life, dosage, and effective release of drugs.

The design of pharmaceuticals at the nanoscale enables drugs to interact with cellular structures and improve their delivery to desired locations in the body. Correspondingly, these nanoscale designs require measurement, analysis, and imaging capabilities at the nanometer scale.

A tabletop scanning electron microscope uses a beam of electrons to reproduce magnified images of samples. It differs from an optical microscope, which uses beams of visible (“normal”) light. Such a device can magnify samples by up to 100,000 times their normal size and reveal their chemical and structural compositions.

A tabletop scanning electron microscope may detect backscattered electrons (to reveal morphology and topography and give insite as to composition) or secondary electrons (to reveal surface topography). When combined with an energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) instrument, a tabletop SEM may reveal detailed elemental (chemical) composition - i.e., the types and amounts of elements and their spatial distribution.

A Tabletop SEM facilitates the mechanical characterization of drugs, characterization of coatings, analysis of drug crystals, the study of crystal growth, characterization of polymorphic crystals and characterization of antibacterial powders.

The Mechanical properties of active pharmaceutical ingredients and excipients determine how their blends behave during tableting, milling and coating. A tabletop SEM plays an important role in controlling particle sizes and excipient selection.

Tablet film coating is critical to fulfilling clinical needs and increasing the value of oral dosage forms. A tabletop SEM helps characterize the coating thickness, pore structure, roughness and surface area of coating materials.

In most pharmaceutical products, drug molecules are present in a particulate, crystalline form. A tabletop SEM may help analyze the size, shape, purity, stability and other characteristics of a drug crystal to help predict its behavior in large-scale production. The characterization of these crystals helps to guide the optimization of process parameters and minimizes manufacturing costs.

Crystal growth caused by environmental conditions (temperature, pH) may have a detrimental effect on the solubility and bioavailability of drugs. Correspondingly, a tabletop SEM may be used to study these phenomena.

Drug crystals can take several forms. Each form may exhibit different mechanical and chemical properties, including solubility and dissolution rate. A tabletop SEM will help detect and characterize these various forms and help maintain consistency and quality in production.

The overuse of antibiotics renders them ineffective as bacteria become resistant to them. Researchers are seeking new ways to detect bacteria on surfaces. Using a tabletop SEM, they can study the adhesion of microorganisms onto surfaces and uncover bacterial-resistant characteristics.

These represent just a few uses of a tabletop scanning electron microscope in pharmaceutical applications. It is a versatile tool well-suited to morphological analysis, providing high-quality nanoscale images of powders and particles.

Benefits of a Tabletop SEM in Pharmaceutical R&D

While techniques such as laser diffraction reveal particle size and shape, they don’t show where smaller particles agglomerate into larger structures. A tabletop SEM reveals this information, providing further insights into the quality of materials.

Space is often at a premium for smaller pharmaceutical companies. Outsourcing the SEM workflow is typically the only option, significantly increasing costs and turnaround times. A tabletop SEM has a smaller footprint and a lower cost of adoption, making it straightforward to integrate into a laboratory’s workflow. Its user interface requires minimal training, so less experienced users can execute runs effortlessly.

With a tabletop SEM from JEOL, pharmaceutical companies gain a robust and versatile tool for analyzing substance morphology, topography and composition right from within their own laboratory environment.


Ugalmugle S., et al. (2021). Scanning Electron Microscope Market worth over $4bn by 2027.

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