Turning Smartphones Into Microscopes for Less Than a Dollar

Researchers in the US have developed a small 3D-printable device with a lens that clips onto smartphones and can be used as an inexpensive microscope in regions where diagnostic equipment is not readily available.

Author Anna Rees, 03.17.15

Researchers in the US have developed a small 3D-printable device with a lens that clips onto smartphones and can be used as an inexpensive microscope in regions where diagnostic equipment is not readily available.

The device makes use of a smartphone’s camera and features a small glass sphere which acts as the microscope lens (spheres do not come as part of the 3D printable model but can be purchased online for about one US cent). The glass beads used in the sphere are most commonly used for reflective runway markings at airports. The device clips onto the end of a smartphone and aligns the camera lens with the glass sphere, offering three degrees of magnification: 1000x, which is necessary for spotting anthrax spores and plague cells; 350x, to detect parasites in blood samples or protozoa in drinking water; and 100x which young children can use for educational purposes such as examining local plantlife. The combined cost of the material needed to print the device (not incuding the 3D printer itself) plus the glass sphere is less than one US dollar.

The initiative, developed by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), looks to make microscopic analysis easier and more accessible, and could be of great help to medical professionals in developing countries. Conventional microscopes can be very expensive and in areas of the world where access to diagnostic equipment is low, ‘makeshift microscopes’ could assist doctors in making rapid diagnoses and help them determine the particular strain of a disease that might be affecting a patient.

PNNL offers the 3D printing files free of charge on their website and provides information on where to purchase the glass spheres. For more information, head to the website or check out the video below:

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