Some of the most disease-afflicted places in the world are also the poorest. Illnesses like diarrhea, malaria, or e-coli are easily treatable with antibiotics or regular hygiene, but such measures are often unaffordable or impractical. Even if treatment is available and affordable, people with these ailments often don’t know they have them because there’s no easy way to detect them. Manu Prakash, a Stanford University bio-engineering professor, seeks to address the cost of basic medical equipment and make it available to anyone and everyone, and has developed a microscope made primarily from a piece of paper.
The microscope, called Foldscope, also uses an LED, a watch battery, and a spherical lens to create a printable, foldable, and disposable origami-like a microscope capable of magnifying an object about 2,000 times. Foldscope costs 50 cents per unit, weighs 9 grams (about as much as two nickels), is waterproof, and can survive a 3-story fall or the underside of someone’s shoe.
The design secret is the spherical lens, rather than the conventional curved glass. The tiny orb fits into a hole just next to the slide platform, which is also a strip of paper. You focus on the sample by moving the paper with the thumb and fingers, and by flexing or bending the paper, which controls the degree of magnification.
Given all of those attributes, Foldscope could revolutionize medical treatment, especially in developing countries. The design can be—and has been—adjusted for different types of microscopy, such as projection, polarization, fluorescence, and more, and can be optimized for the identification of specific diseases. Prakash says that his “dream is that someday, every kid will have a Foldscope in their back pocket” to facilitate interest in science, as well as the accessibility of these instruments.
Prakash and his team, along with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, are looking for 10,000 beta testers to receive Foldscope kits in August. The pocket microscope has already been used in Uganda, India, and Nigeria. It’s not just an idea worth spreading, but a device worth spreading, particularly given how cheap, portable, and infinitely useful it has proven to be. Sometimes the simple ideas really are the best.