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Wed September 3, 2014

A $1 Microscope Folds From Paper With A Drop Of Glue

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 10:13 am

We have pocket watches, pocket cameras and now — with smartphones — pocket computers.

So why shouldn't doctors and scientists around the world have pocket microscopes?

Bioengineer Manu Prakash and his team at Stanford University have designed a light microscope that not only fits in your pocket but costs less than a dollar to make.

And here's the coolest part: You put the microscope together yourself, by folding it.

Imagine all the uses for this so-called Foldscope. Even in the poorest corners of the globe, doctors and scientists could use the pocket scope to diagnose common bacteria and pathogens, such as giardia, Chagas and malaria.

Here's how it works.

"So the starting material looks really like a flat sheet of paper," Prakash says.

That's because, well, it is a flat sheet of paper. But it has a thin plastic coating that makes it sturdier and resistant to tearing, Prakash says.

Then he and his team run the paper through a special printer that actually prints a lens on the paper. "You should think of it as a drop of glue, a tiny drop of glue," he says, "except it is an optical-quality glue."

The printer also prints lines on the paper, showing people where to make the folds that will align the light on the lens so the microscope will work.

It turns out people can fold paper quite accurately, Prakash says. "So that's one of the things that is hidden in the design that allows us to make instruments that are very precise, but actually are just made by people folding a simple sheet."

And all the components of the Foldscope are quite cheap. When you manufacture 10,000 devices:

  • The sheet of paper costs 6 cents.
  • The lens costs between 17 and 56 cents, depending on the type of lens and microscope.
  • Add in an LED light for 21 cents.
  • A battery for 6 cents.
  • An on-off switch for 5 cents.
  • And a few other bits and bobs, and you've got a microscope for less than a dollar.

Prakash says he expects some people will use the microscope in schools. And others will find them useful in clinics or laboratories for doing simple medical tests or for making field repairs of small electronic equipment. But he's sending the Foldscopes out to many people around the world, hoping they'll find uses for them that he can't even imagine.

"By the end of the summer," he says, "we'll be shipping 50,000 of these microscopes to 130 countries, and then just watch what happens." Or to put it another way: He'll see what unfolds.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, let's take a few minutes to unfold science.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTRODUCTION MUSIC)

BLOCK: All summer, our science correspondent Joe Palca has been bringing us stories in a series called Unfolding Science. It is literally about things that fold and unfold. Today, Joe tells us how you can turn a flat sheet into a microscope.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Microscopes are extremely useful tools in science and medicine. But they can be expensive and hard to manufacture, meaning that typically only well-heeled scientists can get their hands on them. Manu Prakash of Stanford University wanted to change that. He's designed microscopes that cost less than a dollar and that anyone anywhere can make. Here's how he did it.

MANU PRAKASH: So the starting material looks really like a flat sheet of paper.

PALCA: That's because, basically, it is a flat sheet of paper. But Prakash says the paper has a thin plastic coating that makes it sturdier and resistant to tearing. Then they run the paper through a special printer that actually prints a lens on the paper.

PRAKASH: You should think of it as a drop of glue - a tiny drop of glue except it is an optical-quality glue.

PALCA: The printer also prints lines on the paper showing people where to make the folds that will align the light on the lens so the microscope will work. Prakash says it turns out people can fold paper quite accurately.

PRAKASH: So that's one of the things that is hidden in the design that allows us to make instruments that are very precise but are actually just made by people by folding a simple sheet.

PALCA: A sheet of paper costs about six cents. The lens costs between about 17 and 56 cents depending on the type of lens and the type of microscope. Add in an LED light for 21 cents, a six-cent battery, a five-cent on-off switch and a few other bits and bobs, and you've got a microscope for less than a dollar. Prakash says he expects some people will use the microscopes in schools and others will find them useful in clinics for doing simple medical tests or making field repairs on small electronic equipment. But he's sending them out to lots of people hoping they'll find things to do with them he can't even imagine.

PRAKASH: By the end of the summer, we'll be shipping 50,000 of these microscopes to 130 countries and then just watch what happens.

PALCA: Or to put it another way, see what unfolds. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.