The microscope holds a place on the short list of inventions that have changed the world and revolutionized our understanding of science. Microscopes are crucially important public health tools, allowing workers to identify pathogens and correctly diagnose the cause of illnesses. As educational tools, they can excite and engage students, revealing a world invisible to the naked eye. And, as many people who’d love a microscope but don’t have one can tell you, they are also expensive. Millions of doctors, health workers, and patients worldwide lack the resources to benefit from this vital tool, and millions of students have never seen a microscope before. In a dramatic step to address this problem, researchers from Stanford University have designed ultra-low-cost microscopes built from an inexpensive yet durable material: paper. They recently published their designs and data in PLOS ONE.
Meet the Foldscope. Borrowing from the time-honored tradition of origami, the Foldscope is a multi-functional microscope that can be assembled much like a paper doll. Users cut the pieces from a pattern of cardstock, fold it according to the printed lines, and add the battery, LED, and lens, and−voilà−a microscope. Click here to watch a video of how one is assembled. Some of their coolest features are as follows:
- Foldscopes are highly adaptable and can be configured for bright-field and dark-field microscopy, to hold multiple lenses, or to illuminate fluorescent stains (with a special LED).
- They can be designed for low or high powers and are capable of magnifying an image more than 2,000-fold.
- They accept standard microscope slides, and the viewer can move the lens back and forth across the slide by pushing or pulling on paper tabs.
- Users can focus the microscope by pushing or pulling paper tabs that change the lens’ position.
- Foldscopes are compact and light, especially when compared with conventional field microscopes. They also weigh less than 10 grams each, or about the weight of two nickels.
- They are difficult to break. You can stomp on them without doing much damage, and they can survive harsh field environments and encounters with children.
What’s the total cost, you ask? According to authors, it’s less than a dollar. At that price, it’s easy to imagine widespread use of Foldscopes by many who previously could not afford traditional microscopes. In this TED Talk, Manu Prakash demonstrates the Foldscopes and explains his hopes for them. The authors envision mass producing them and distributing different designs optimized for detecting the pathogens that cause specific diseases, such as Leishmaniasis and E. coli. They could even include simple instructions for how to treat and prepare slides for specific diagnostic tests or provide pathogen identification guides to help health workers in the field make diagnoses. This is just one way in which the ability to see tiny things could make a huge difference in the world.
Citation: Cybulski JS, Clements J, Prakash M (2014) Foldscope: Origami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98781. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098781
Images: Images are from Figures 1 and 2 of the published paper