Most microscopes cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. They’re treated carefully with their lenses kept clean with special cloths. That’s a stark difference when compared to a microscope developed by Stanford University engineers that can be dropped off a balcony, stepped on and soaked in water.
What’s more, “Foldscope” is made of paper and costs less than a dollar to make.
“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” Manu Prakash said, according to Stanford’s Scopeblog. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”
The microscope was also developed by James Cybulski and James Clements in the university’s mechanical engineering department.
Unlike traditional microscopes, Foldscope’s lens isn’t expensively ground curved glass. Scopeblog explained how the most important part of a microscope was developed inexpensively for Foldscope:
These poppy-seed-sized lenses were originally mass produced in various sizes as an abrasive grit that was thrown into industrial tumblers to knock the rough edges off metal parts. In the simplest configuration of the Foldscope, one 17-cent lens is press-fit into a small hole in the center of the slide-mounting platform. Some of his more sophisticated versions use multiple lenses and filters.
Because of the unique optical physics of a spherical lens held close to the eye, samples can be magnified up to 2,000 times.
Though “literally built out of paper, tape and glue” — and a lens of course — Foldscope can become more advanced with the addition of a button-cell battery and surface-mountd LED, among a few other components.
The paper-printed microscope can be shipped flat and folded in minutes. It’s sensitive enough to detect microbes that cause diseases like malaria, among others.
In addition to being a useful tool in the field, Parkash told Scopeblog he thinks it could also help inspire budding scientists who wouldn’t otherwise have access to microscopes.
“This light, rugged instrument can survive harsh field conditions while providing a diversity of imaging capabilities, thus serving wide-ranging applications for cost-effective, portable microscopes in science and education,” the authors said in a paper about the device.
“It was a hard challenge thinking of making the best possible instrument but almost for free, and that was our starting line,” Parkash said in a video.
“They’re as good as many research microscopes that you can buy,” he added later.
Watch Parkash talk about the foldable microscope that costs about 50 cents to produce: