Dissemination of IT for the Promotion of Materials Science (DoITPoMS)


Ceramics and Polymers


Thin Sections

To prepare ceramic specimens for transmitted light microscopy, a thin slice, approximately 5 mm thick, is cut using a diamond saw or cutting wheel. One surface is then lapped using liquid suspensions of successively finer silicon carbide powders. Between stages in the process the specimen must be thoroughly cleaned. After final washing and drying the ground surface is bonded to a microscope slide with resin. A cut off saw is used on the exposed face to reduce the thickness to about 0.7 mm. The specimen is then lapped to take it to the required thickness – usually about 30 µm, although some ceramic specimens are thinned to as little as 10 µm, due to their finer grain size. The slide is checked for thickness under the microscope, and then hand finished.  The slide is then covered with a protective cover slip.


The lapping process is an alternative to grinding, in which the abrasive particles are not firmly fixed to paper. Instead a paste and lubricant is applied to the surface of a disc. Surface roughness from coarser preparation steps is removed by the micro-impact of rolling abrasive particles.

Polished sections

These differ from ordinary thin sections in that the upper surface of the specimen is not covered with a cover slip, but is polished. Care must be taken to prevent the specimen breaking. Sections may be examined using both transmitted and reflected light microscopy, which is particularly useful if some constituents are opaque.


Thin sections

Thin sections of organic polymers are prepared from solid material by cutting slices using a microtome – a mechanical instrument used for cutting thin sections. They must be cut at a temperature below the glass transition temperature of the polymer. A cut section curls up during cutting and must be unrolled and mounted on a microscope slide and covered with a cover slip. A few drops of mounting adhesive are used and must be compatible with the specimen. As always the mounting temperature must not affect the microstructure of the specimen.

The thickness of cut slices of polymer tend to lie in the range 2 to 30 µm depending on the type of material.

Harder polymers can be prepared in the same way as thin ceramic specimens.

Polished sections

These are prepared in the same way as metallographic specimens. Elastomers are more difficult to polish than thermosetting polymers and require longer polishing times. Lubricants used during polishing must not be absorbed by the specimen.

As crystalline regions are attacked more slowly than amorphous ones, etching of polymer specimens can produce contrast revealing the polymer structure.