droplet lenses on a slide
April 25, 2014

Inexpensive Process Can Turn Smartphone Into High-Res Microscope

[ Watch the Video: New Lens Turns Smartphones Into High-Resolution Microscopes ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Scientists from Australia have developed an easy and inexpensive way to turn a smartphone into a high-resolution microscope – a discovery that could revolutionize science and medicine in developing nations.

In research appearing in Thursday’s edition of the journal Biomedical Optics Express, the authors propose a flexible moldless lens fabrication method based on curing a hanging transparent polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) elastomer droplet on a curved substrate.

The technique, which was developed by Dr. Steve Lee from The Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Engineering, reportedly costs less than one cent and can be used to develop lenses for a plethora of applications, including tools that can detect diseases in the field and optical lenses that can be used to teach schoolchildren.

The lenses are created by placing a droplet of liquid polymer onto a microscope cover slip, Dr. Lee explained. He and his colleagues then inverted it so that gravity would help achieve the ideal curvature. They found that they could reach a magnifying power of up to 160 times by successively adding tiny amounts of fluid into the droplet.

“It would be perfect for the third world. All you need is a fine tipped tool, a cover slip, some polymer and an oven,” Lee said in a recent statement, adding that the first droplet lens was actually made accidentally. “I nearly threw them away. I happened to mention them to my colleague Tri Phan and he got very excited. So then I decided to try to find the optimum shape, to see how far I could go. When I saw the first images of yeast cells I was like, ‘Wow!’”

Dr. Phan, who works with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, and Dr. Lee joined forces to create a lightweight 3D-printable frame that could hold the lens, as well as some tiny LED lights and a coin battery. Dr. Phan believes that the miniature microscope could be exceptionally useful, especially if paired with the correct smartphone applications.

“This is a whole new era of miniaturization and portability - image analysis software could instantly transform most smartphones into sophisticated mobile laboratories,” he said. “I am most able to see the potential for this device in the practice of medicine, although I am sure specialists in other fields will immediately see its value for them.”

Dr. Lee also points out that the tool, which could be commercially released within the next few months, could be used by farmers to help identify the pests in their crops, or by biologists who could use them as implantable lenses to analyze cells in vivo. Currently, the lenses can only be manufactured to approximately one-half inch in diameter, but cost only around $2 while traditional dermascopes can cost $500 or more.

“What I'm really excited about is that it opens up lens fabrication technology,” Lee told Angela Stark of The Optical Society. “What I did was to systematically fine-tune the curvature that's formed by a simple droplet with the help of gravity, and without any molds… It's a low cost and easy lens-making recipe.”