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Article by Lauren Farrar
“What if you could drop microscopes literally around the world from an airplane?” Manu Prakash, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University would often joke with his team.
This musing actually heavily influenced the design of their new microscope, a paper origami microscope. They call it a Foldscope. The microscope is printed on waterproof paper. The user punches out the pieces and folds them together to create a fully functional microscope. It works with standard microscope slides and requires no batteries or electricity to operate. You simply hold the Foldscope up to a light source (like the sun) and look through the salt grain-sized lens to view the sample on the slide. The high curvature of the tiny lenses used in the Foldscope allows small objects to be highly magnified. This little invention costs less than a dollar to produce and could have major implications for global health and for science education.
Prakash grew up in small towns in India where access to healthcare and diagnostic tools, like microscopes, weren’t always easy to come by. He has traveled extensively throughout developing countries and has seen firsthand how diseases like malaria, African sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis can go untreated or are mistreated because patients are not properly diagnosed. Diagnosis of diseases like these usually require a microscope to identify the presence of a particular parasite so that the proper treatment can be administered. But remote or resource poor areas don’t always have access to these heavy, expensive microscopes used in other parts of the world. Standard microscopes are also difficult to transport when doctors travel from village to village to diagnose and treat patients. And even when remote places do have microscopes, there is little support to maintain them or parts available to fix them if they break.
“Humidity and tropics are terrible for optics… Most of the time when we’re in the field there is fungus growing on the lenses… There were times when we were imaging there, we saw an insect colony come out of the microscope,” Prakash describes some of the challenges of doing field microscopy in remote tropical areas.
Prakash was determined to build a cheap, robust, easy-to-use and easy-to-fix microscope that required no power and worked with traditional microscope slides. After prototyping with simple supplies like paper, tape and scissors, he and his team came up with a design that worked. The base level requires no external power source and relies on the sun as the primary light source. The team has since developed multiple versions that allow users to do different kinds of microscopy. For example, there are versions with external light modules, versions of various magnifications, versions that allow for fluorescence microscopy, versions that allow for bright field microscopy, versions that allow for dark field microscopy, and versions that allow the user to project the image on a wall. You can even attach a smartphone to the microscope in order to record images.
The Foldscopes are currently undergoing validation studies and clinical trials to be approved as diagnostic tools for diseases including malaria, African sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis.
In addition to their potential value for global health, Foldscopes have a strong educational appeal. Prakash wanted to get these microscopes in the hands of children everywhere, so he started the Ten Thousand Microscope project. He wanted to create a network of learners asking questions, so he put a call out for people to submit an idea for an experiment that they would like to do with the Foldscope and then report back on their findings. This idea was so well received that he has shipped approximately 50,000 microscopes to people all around the world. Some of them are already reporting their findings on his website. He hopes that this project will inspire curiosity and scientific thinking.
“Scientific tools need to become common day-to-day objects if we want people to think scientifically,” he says.
While Foldscopes used for diagnostic testing come pre-folded to ensure high quality control, the ones sent out for educational purposes through the Ten Thousand Microscope Project are folded and built by the users. He hopes that school children, hackers, and tinkerers all over the world will build on and add to the microscopes. While Prakash isn’t quite dropping these Foldscopes from airplanes, he’s certainly getting them into the hands of children all around the world.
This video is part of our Engineering Is: Diagnosing Diseases with Origami Microscopes e-book. The e-book explores the science and engineering principles behind Manu Prakash’s Foldscopes project, and includes videos, interactives and media making opportunities. You can find our other e-books at kqed.org/ebooks.