The majority of engineering steels are ferromagnetic and structurally inhomogeneous on scales ranging from nanometers to micrometers, and their physical properties depend on the three-dimensional (3D) features in their microstructures. Thus, obtaining a 3D image with a large field of view is desirable for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) based microstructure characterization in order to establish the relationship between the microstructure and the physical properties with a reasonable statistical relevancy. Here, we use a conventional sample preparation process, i.e., mechanical polishing followed by electropolishing, and optimizing experimental protocols for electron tomography (ET) of ferromagnetic materials, to carry out microstructural characterization of engineering steel. We determined that the sample thickness after the mechanical polishing step is a critical experimental parameter affecting the success rate of tilt-series image acquisitions. For example, for ferritic heat-resistant 9Cr steel, mechanical thinning down to 30 μm or less was necessary to acquire an adequate tilt-series image of the carbide precipitates in the annular dark-field scanning TEM (ADF-STEM) mode. However, acquiring tilt-series images of dislocation structures remains a challenge due to an unavoidable, significant electron beam deflection during specimen tilt, even with a thinned sample. To overcome the electron beam deflection problem, we evaluated several relatively accessible approaches including the "Low-Mag STEM and Lorentz TEM" modes. Although rarely used for ET, both modes reduce or even zero the objective lens current, likely weakening the magnetic interference between the ferromagnetic specimen and the objective lens magnetic field. The advantages and disadvantages of these experimental components are discussed.
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