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  • Video: Cell Phones Become Microscopes with 3-D Printing
Sep 2014
RICHLAND, Wash., Sept. 17, 2014 — 3-D printing could help turn cellphones into high-powered microscopes, enabling them to identify biological samples in the field.

A team at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) used a 3-D printer to create a small plastic housing that fits over the end of a cellphone. A tiny glass bead is then placed into the housing, producing a miniature microscope.

The device is easy to handle and use, offers very high magnification and the materials to create it cost less than $1, according to the engineers.

It can be adapted to fit several brands of phones and potentially even tablets. Similar gadgets produced in the past were bulky, difficult to align, lower powered and expensive to manufacture.

The glass beads vary by magnification needs. One has demonstrated 1000× magnification, which is needed to see tiny pathogens. A 350× version has also been created, which can be used to identify parasites in a blood sample or protozoa in drinking water. A 100× version will be available, too, potentially enabling children to investigate common items such as salt grains and flower petals.

To use the device, the sample must first be put into a slide for viewing. If the sample turns out to be a toxic material or a contaminant, the unit is manufactured cheaply enough to simply be discarded. The cell phone could then be fitted with a new microscope.

“We interviewed a lot of first responders, public health labs and civil support teams,” said a PNNL biochemist. “They told us the first thing they do when a suspicious powder sample gets to the lab is to put it under the microscope. An inexpensive, yet powerful microscope in the field could be used to quickly determine whether the material is a threat or a hoax.”

Additionally, combining the microscope with the picture-sharing capability of a smartphone can allow anyone to evaluate a sample at the source and have a trained microbiologist located in a lab elsewhere interpret the results within minutes.

Anyone with access to a 3-D printer will be able to make their own microscope, as PNNL is making its design specifications available to the public.

The new device could benefit and enhance applications involving human and veterinary medicine, schools and emergency first responders.

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