Suppose you were a first responder, who got called out to investigate a suspicious substance found in a public place. Instead of having to transport that material back to the lab, wouldn't it be better if you could just take a microscope image of it with your smartphone, email that image off to a remote lab, then receive the analysis within just a few minutes while you were still on location? Thanks to a very inexpensive new phone attachment developed at the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), that could soon be possible.
The device consists of a 3D-printed plastic clip, which houses a small glass sphere. The spheres are easily purchased online, are worth about one cent each, and are commonly used in reflective airport runway markings.
Although scientists have experimented with using such spheres as microscope lenses for some time, most of the systems incorporating them have been awkward, provided a relatively low level of magnification, or were difficult to align with the imaging system.
By contrast, the PNNL microscope is compact (the clip is no thicker than a phone case), it lines up easily with the phone's camera lens, and it magnifies objects by 1,000x – this is adequate for seeing items such as anthrax spores. For applications where lower magnifications are preferable, the lab has also produced 350x and 100x versions. The former is reportedly sufficient for imaging parasites in blood samples or microbes in water, while the latter is intended more for educational use in classrooms.
The combined cost of a single sphere and the required plastic is less than one dollar. The lab is making the 3D printer files freely available to anyone who wants them, along with links to sources of the glass spheres (see the PNNL link at the bottom of the page). Although the device works particularly well with the iPhone, it can reportedly also be used with most other smartphone makes and models.
As an added bonus, because the microscope is so cheap, it can simply be thrown away after being used to image hazardous substances.
A scientist from Australian National University has also recently created his own $2 smartphone microscope, although it uses hardened drops of silicone instead of glass spheres.