Using a Vacuum
When a SEM is used, the column must always be at a vacuum. There are many reasons for this. If the sample is in a gas filled environment, an electron beam cannot be generated or maintained because of a high instability in the beam. Gases could react with the electron source, causing it to burn out, or cause electrons in the beam to ionize, which produces random discharges and leads to instability in the beam. The transmission of the beam through the electron optic column would also be hindered by the presence of other molecules. Those other molecules, which could come from the sample or the microscope itself, could form compounds and condense on the sample. This would lower the contrast and obscure detail in the image.
A vacuum environment is also necessary in part of the sample preparation. One such example is the sputter coater. If the chamber isn’t at vacuum before the sample is coated, gas molecules would get in the way of the argon and gold. This could lead to uneven coating, or no coating at all.