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Print Your Own Disease-Detecting Microscope for 50 Cents

Foldscope

A bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University has created a functional paper microscope for only $0.50.

Microscopy technology has not changed much in recent history. According to Manu Prakash, a bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University, we use the exact same technology for diagnostics today as Mohandas Gandhi did in the 1940s. “Even though [they are] the pinnacle of modern science, research microscopes are not designed for field testing,” Prakash says in a TED Talk for TEDGlobal. “Neither were they first designed for diagnostics at all. They are heavy, bulky, really hard to maintain, and cost a lot of money.”

This realization led to the creation of Foldscope, a completely functional Origami-like microscope that costs less than $0.50 to produce. No bigger than a bookmark but with the ability to magnify samples up to 2,000 times their original size, the device holds within its cardstock frame the same advanced microscopic technology of most research microscopes without the high costs and complex assembly. “I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” Prakash told Scope. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

The Foldscope weighs less than two nickels, can be built in minutes, and forgoes written instructions for simple, color-coded perforations. It requires no external power, is durable enough to be submerged in water or dropped from a three-story building without damage, and can be incinerated after use for safe disposal of infected slides. Its straightforward design, cheap production cost, and easy application works well in field-based citizen science and educational purposes, and Prakash says he would love for today’s children and tomorrow’s future scientists to be able to “just print out a Foldscope and carry them around in their pockets.”

According to Foldscope’s website, the device is focused on democratizing science and developing tools that can be applied to problems in global health and science education. Prakash and his team are currently offering 10,000 Foldscopes to citizen scientists who apply with the most inspiring and creative potential applications of the paper telescope. The idea is to create a crowd-sourced microscopy manual with data and ideas collected from the participants in the study. “So many times people use a tool for one specific purpose and don’t realize the rich potential for other uses,” Prakash says. “This online manual will inspire further explorations.” Currently, the microscope is capable of being customized to detect specific blood-borne diseases such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and Chagas. Prakash hopes citizens take advantage of the Foldscope's open-source design to develop his invention further.

Photo by Foldscope.