One drop lens could bring microscopy to masses
Australian engineers have come up with a new way of making lenses, which could turn any smart phone into a microscope.
The innovative technique for crafting lenses uses the simple but powerful forces of gravity to hone polymers for magnification up to 160 times.
The resulting lenses are cheap, powerful and could create a research revolution by delivering high-resolution microscopy to developing countries and remote areas.
The lenses are made by using the natural shape of liquid droplets.
“We put a droplet of polymer onto a microscope cover slip and then invert it. Then we let gravity do the work, to pull it into the perfect curvature,” Dr Steve Lee from the Australian National University (ANU) said.
“By successively adding small amounts of fluid to the droplet, we discovered that we can reach a magnifying power of up to 160 times with an imaging resolution of four micrometres.”
The polymer, polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), is the same as that used for contact lenses, and it won’t break or scratch.
“It would be perfect for the third world. All you need is a fine tipped tool, a cover slip, some polymer and an oven,” Dr Lee said.
The first droplet lens was made by accident.
“I nearly threw them away. I happened to mention them to my colleague Tri Phan, and he got very excited,” Dr Lee said.
“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 Lee and his team worked with Dr Phan to design a lightweight 3D-printable frame to hold the lens, along with a couple of miniature LED lights for illumination, and a coin battery.
There are also exciting possibilities for remote medical and biosecurity diagnosis.
Dr Phan said the tiny microscope has a wide range of potential uses, particularly if coupled with the right smartphone apps.
“This is a whole new era of miniaturisation and portability – image analysis software could instantly transform most smartphones into sophisticated mobile laboratories,” Dr Phan 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.”
“There are also possibilities for farmers,” he said.
“They can photograph fungus or insects on their crops, upload the pictures to the internet where a specialist can identify if they are a problem or not.”
ANU has put together the following video about the exciting creation.