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Australian Researchers Develop 3D Printed Clip-On Attachment to Turn Smartphone into Microscope

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Image of camera with lens and sample slide, sample showing brightfield image of Lilium ovary using ‘Photo’ mode with flash.

You may have read about the team of researchers who, working with an NSF grant, have introduced and made freely available a 3D printable attachment for a cell phone that turns it into a fluorescence microscope. Well, when it rains it pours, because now a group of researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) in Australia have introduced their own 3D printed clip-on attachment that allows anyone with a smartphone to convert it into, you guessed it, a microscope. Their model uses the phone’s built-in flash to illuminate the sample and “enables transmission brightfield and darkfield microscopy on a mobile phone without any externally powered light source or additional illumination optics,” according to CNBP.

The researchers have described their creation in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports and are making the files that create the clip on freely available for anyone to download. The microscope itself is capable of producing images from specimens as miniscule as 1/200th of a millimeter, meaning it can be utilized to examine things such as cells and microscopic organisms, making it useful for field medicine or water sample analysis among other things.

Various zooplankton imaged in a capillary glass slide under brightfield illumination in the mobile phone microscope.

Quick to acknowledge the number of efforts and amount of work that has come before them, the team set out to address what they saw as weaknesses in the currently available cell phone attachments that were preventing them from being as useful as possible outside of the lab, such as the need for further external components. A large portion of their advancement came as a result of utilizing the on-phone flash rather than looking for other sources of illumination, as Dr. Antony Orth, lead developer and CNBP Research Fellow at RMIT University, described:

Dr. Antony Orth, CNBP Research Fellow

“We’ve designed a simple mobile phone microscope that takes advantage of the integrated illumination available with nearly all smartphone cameras. Almost all other phone-based microscopes use externally powered light sources while there’s a perfectly good flash on the phone itself. External LEDs and power sources can make these other systems surprisingly complex, bulky, and difficult to assemble. The beauty of our design is that the microscope is useable after one simple assembly step and requires no additional illumination optics, reducing significantly the cost and complexity of assembly. The clip-on is also able to be 3D printed making the device accessible to anyone with basic 3D printing capabilities.”

As no one is arguing that the smartphone microscope should replace the extensive and powerful electronics available in well-equipped laboratories, clearly the easier it is to print and utilize the clip-on in the field, the more successful the development of such an accessory is. The hope is that the development of easily disseminated and simply produced attachments such as this one will enable people to take advantage of the benefits of microscopic examination in places where access to other resources is limited.

(a) Brightfield image of unstained Caco-2 cells. (b) the same sample but in darkfield. (c) Scale bar 50 μm. (d) Magnified view of the red box in b.

As Dr. Orth further explained:

“Powerful microscopes can be few and far between in some regions. They’re often only found in larger population centers and not in remote or smaller communities. Yet their use in these areas can be essential – for determining water quality for drinking, through to analyzing blood samples for parasites, or for disease diagnosis including malaria.”

The clip-on makes the cell phone capable of both brightfield microscopy, the observation of the specimen when presented on a bright background, and darkfield microscopy, an illuminated specimen presented on a dark background, each useful in particular situations and further broadening the amount of situations in which the attachment can usefully substitute for a standard microscope. The research team has made test runs of the 3D printed attachment for an iPhone 6 in a variety of field situations and has released the files necessary for others to print their own on the CNBP web site.

In addition to being a boon for those needing access to microscopy in the field, the release of those files for use makes this project ideal for students in STEAM education, especially given the concurrent proliferation of smart phones. Thus one generation of scientists reaches out to the cohort that will follow on their heels and invites those around the world to work with, and possibly improve upon, their own work.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source/Images: CNBP]

 

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