New Technology Turns Smartphones into Microscopes

Microscopes for the Masses

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have now developed a small plastic device that can slip over most smartphone brands and models to turn them into powerful microscopes—and, again, their materials cost less than $1.

The device, which is no thicker than a phone case, simply slips over the camera lens and houses a tiny glass bead that magnifies the image your smartphone camera captures. The beads are traditionally used for reflective pavement markings at airports and PNNL is repurposing ones in 3mm, 1mm, and 0.3mm sizes, the latter magnifying images 1,000 times over.

Because of this magnifying power, the microscope can help identify anthrax spores and other pathogens. “Our hope is that you could give this tool to someone in a remote location and allow them to do diagnostic work, visualizing parasites and even detecting malaria,” said Janine Hutchison, a microbiologist at PNNL. “Agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security need to be able to detect such biohazards quickly and easily. The microscope's cost-effective design means it can simply be thrown away if it becomes damaged.”

From healthcare professionals working in the field to families exploring their own backyards, anyone can now turn their smartphones into powerful microscopes—and for less than $1.

As anyone who took high school biology can attest, microscopes are bulky, heavy and generally tricky to showcase more than a blurry image. And as your teacher would add, they are also expensive.

That’s why scientists and healthcare professionals have long been limited in what tests they could perform when away from the lab. In recent years, scientists have developed microscopes that attach to smartphones, but most have used cumbersome and expensive custom lenses and add-ons, which are less than ideal for professionals working in the field.

For the Untrained Eye

“What’s more, as in many first-responder situations, if the person looking at a sample isn’t a trained microbiologist, he or she could snap a picture and send it to someone who is, Hutchinson said. “It would help alleviate the legwork often needed to collect samples in the field and transport them to laboratories for examination.”

Meanwhile, embedding the plastic casing with a 1mm glass bead magnifies images 350 times, allowing health workers to identify parasites in blood samples and pollutants in drinking water.

The 3mm glass beads are best for at-home and school use, and the PNNL’s science education staff is working through the Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory to help students in Washington state gain access to the microscopes. The 3mm beads magnify images 100 times, empowering children to examine common items like leaves and pencils.

“It gives people an opportunity to do science in their own background. It allows students and parents to explore the world around them. It gives people an opportunity to look deeper at something they haven’t before,” Hutchinson said.

PNNL has released directions for building the device, so that anything with access to a 3D printer can print the cover and embed a tiny bead inside of it. “This is the beauty of the 3D printer,” Hutchinson said. “It makes it really cost effective to be a scientist.”


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