Turn Your Smartphone Into a Cheap, Yet Powerful Microscope Via 3D Printing

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pacYour smart phone has just become a science lab! Although perhaps most welcome news for those germophobes among us, a new 3D-printed device for smart phones and tablets also facilitates marvelous new teaching moments for children–and for their curious, discovery-oriented adult counterparts. The low-cost device, which combines two components–a 3D printed clip and glass sphere–is a powerful yet inexpensive microscope. When inserted over the camera lens of your cell phone or tablet, the microscope is “no thicker than a phone case” and is “designed to fit most cell phone brands, including iPhone 4 and 5, Galaxy S3 and S4 phones and iPads,” according to its developers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

smartphonemicroscope

PNNL, located in Richland, Washington, is one of ten national laboratories that are managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Some of their major clients are the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as industry, other government agencies, and universities. A major impetus for the development of the inexpensive but powerful microscope was the DHS’s “need for rapid bio detection technologies,” explained microbiologist, Janine Hutchison, of PNNL. Not only is the device easy to install, it is also inexpensive to produce and replace in the event it is contaminated. The material to make the microscope–not including the 3D printer–costs less than $1.

According to the PNNL development team, the lens of the microscope is produced using “inexpensive glass beads traditionally used for reflective pavement markings at airports.” Glass spheres have been used to produce microscope lenses before, but, noted the PNNL innovators, “the small size of the housing combined with very high magnification and extremely low cost is what makes this device practical.”

Most impressive is the high magnification made possible with this tiny device. At 1000x magnification, it can detect “tiny anthrax spores and plaque cells.” A less intense version of the lens at 350x magnification is “adequate to identify pac1parasites in blood samples or protozoa in drinking water.” It probably goes without saying, therefore, that the applications for this tiny but formidable device are quite broad and of tremendous value for health care workers, first responders and others in the public health and safety sectors. “We feel there are many uses out there including human and veterinary medicine in developing countries,” Hutchinson confirmed.

She went on to note other possible, invaluable uses for the microscope: “We are also really excited about engaging kids in science. School districts have a hard time providing enough microscopes for students. Our science education staff is getting it into the hands of local school children this fall, through the auspices of the Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory,” an organization that applies “an interdisciplinary approach to learning which removes the traditional barriers separating the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and integrates them into the real world…”

For initiates and hobbyists, even the lowest-magnification version of the microscope at 100x actual size, provides wonderful possibilities. It “enables children,” for instance, “to investigate common items like salt grains and flower petals in much greater detail.” The PNNL team recommends starting with the 100x version in order to familiarize yourself with the system, including refining the alignment process, which is a bit more challenging with the higher magnification versions and “take more time and practice to produce good images.” Lenses that are improperly placed in the housing, imperfect, or dirty obviously create problems, so starting with a less ambitious process is probably wise.

The PNNL team has provided an instructional video along 3D printer files for producing the different lenses and clips–the 350x version includes specifications for printing a slide holder as well–but you must have 3D printer software to open the files. The glass beads can be purchased through a number of sources (see the PNNL article) and the PNNL team has also offered assistance and a troubleshooting resource. You’ll need to supply your own smart phone or tablet and lab coat, and the world is instantaneously your laboratory–for better or for worse!  Discuss this incredible DIY microscope in the 3D printed microscope forum thread on 3DPB.com.  Check out the video below showing off this incredible use of 3D printing.

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