Stanford Bioengineer Develops an Ultra Low Cost Microscope and then Gives 10,000 of Them Away for Free



Manu Prakash, PhD, is a bioengineer at Stanford and has created a microscope which only costs about 50 cents in materials to make. Yes, you read that right, 50 cents. This microscope is basically a bookmark-sized piece of layered cardstock with a micro-lens and is called a “Foldscope.” A Foldscope can be built in a few minutes and then be used to project giant images of plant tissue on the wall of a dark room. His dream with this microscope was to create an ultra-low-cost microscope that could be distributed widely detect dangerous blood-borne diseases like malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis and Chagas. “I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” said Prakash. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

The Foldscope includes no mechanical moving parts, packs in a flat configuration, is extremely rugged and can be incinerated after use to safely dispose of infectious biological samples. Also, what makes this microscope stand out is its use of inexpensive spherical lenses rather than the precision-ground curved glass lenses used in traditional microscopes. Furthermore if minor modifications are made to the design it can be used for bright-field, multi-fluorescence or projection microscopy and can also be customized for the detection of specific organisms by adding various combinations of colored LED lights powered by a watch battery, sample stains and fluorescent filters.

What truly gives you a glimpse of the sort of legacy Prakash is trying to build is the fact that he is giving away 10,000 build-your-own paper microscope kits to citizen scientists with the most inspiring ideas for things to do with this new invention. He has named this initiative The Ten Thousand Microscopes Project, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and his purpose is to inspire children and future scientists to explore and learn from the microscopic world. “Many children around the world have never used a microscope, even in developed countries like the United States,” said Prakash. “A universal program providing a microscope for every child could foster deep interest in science at an early age. My dream is that someday, every kid will have a Foldscope in their back pocket.”


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