Australian Scientists Can Turn Your Smartphone Into A Microscope

Australian Scientists Can Turn Your Smartphone Into A Microscope
Image: CNBP

Take a smartphone, any smartphone, and turn it into a microscope. It’s an innovation that has huge potential to put science in the hands of everyday Australians, as well as making remote and field work a whole lot easier.

A team of researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics have gone and done it – creating a 3D printable “clip-on” that anyone can use.

The microscope is powerful enough to show microscopic organisms, animal and plant cells, blood cells and cell nuclei as small as 1/200th of a millimetre.

The clip-on doesn’t need any external power or light source to work, and is pretty tough, too.

I want one, desperately. The good news? I can have one – and so can you.

The researchers are making the technology freely available – they are sharing the 3D printing files publicly. All you need is access to a 3D printer.

“We’ve designed a simple mobile phone microscope that takes advantage of the integrated illumination available with nearly all smartphone cameras,” explains lead developer and CNBP Research Fellow at RMIT University, Dr Antony Orth.

The clip-on has been engineered with internal “illumination tunnels” that guide light from the camera flash to light up whatever it is you’re looking at from behind. This is an important distinction of this particular innovation.

“Almost all other phone-based microscopes use externally powered light sources while there’s a perfectly good flash on the phone itself,” Dr Orth explains. “External LEDs and power sources can make these other systems surprisingly complex, bulky and difficult to assemble.”

Dr Orth says the beauty of his team’s design is that the microscope is useable after one simple assembly step, and doesn’t need any additional illumination optics. This reduces both the cost and the complexity of putting it together.

A further advantage noted by Dr Orth is that the clip-on lets you use both bright-field and dark-field microscopy techniques. Bright-field microscopy is where a specimen is observed on a bright background. Dark-field shows the specimen illuminated on a dark background.

“The added dark-field functionality lets us observe samples that are nearly invisible under conventional bright-field operation such as cells in media,” Dr Orth says. “Having both capabilities in such a small device is extremely beneficial and increases the range of activity that the microscope can be successfully used for.”

Dr Orth believes the potential applications for the smartphone microscope are enormous – it is an inexpensive and portable tool for all types of on-site or remote area monitoring. We’re talking water quality, blood samples, environmental observation, early disease detection and diagnosis.

“These are all areas where our technology can be easily used to good effect,” Dr Orth explains.

Obviously, the device will come in handy for research in developing countries, too.

“Powerful microscopes can be few and far between in some regions,” says Dr Orth. “They’re often only found in larger population centres and not in remote or smaller communities. Yet their use in these areas can be essential—for determining water quality for drinking, through to analysing blood samples for parasites, or for disease diagnosis including malaria.”

The new phone microscope has already been tested by Dr Orth and his CNBP colleagues in a number of areas, successfully visualising samples ranging from cell culture, to zooplankton to live cattle semen in support of livestock fertility testing.

The 3D printing files for the device are available here.