How to Convert a Smartphone to a Microscope

An add-on clip turns a smartphone into a fully operational microscope. (Source: CNBP)

Australian researchers from the ARC Centre of Excel­lence for Nano­scale Bio­Photonics (CNBP) have developed a 3D printable clip-on that can turn any smart­phone into a fully functional micro­scope. The smartphone micro­scope is powerful enough to visua­lise specimens as small as 1/200th of a millimetre, including micro­scopic organisms, animal and plant cells, blood cells, cell nuclei and more. The clip-on tech­nology is unique in that it requires no external power or light source to work yet offers high-powered micro­scopic perfor­mance in a robust and mobile handheld package.

The researchers are making the tech­nology freely available, sharing the 3D printing files publicly so anyone – from scientists to the scienti­fically curious – can turn their own smart­phones into micro­scopes. Lead developer and CNBP Research Fellow at RMIT University, Antony Orth, believes the tech­nology has immense potential as a scientific tool, one that is ideal for use in remote areas and for field-work where larger stand­alone micro­scopes are un­available or imprac­tical. “We’ve designed a simple mobile phone microscope that takes advantage of the inte­grated illu­mination available with nearly all smart­phone cameras,” says Orth.

The clip-on has been engi­neered with internal illu­mination tunnels that guide light from the camera flash to illu­minate the sample from behind. This overcomes issues seen with other micro­scopy-enabled mobile phone devices. “Almost all other phone-based micro­scopes use externally powered light sources while there’s a perfectly good flash on the phone itself,” Orth explains. “External LEDs and power sources can make these other systems sur­prisingly complex, bulky and diffi­cult to assemble.”

Cells being viewed by the add-on clip (Source: CNBP)

“The beauty of our design is that the micro­scope is useable after one simple assembly step and requires no addi­tional illu­mination optics, reducing signi­ficantly the cost and complexity of assembly. The clip-on is also able to be 3D printed making the device acces­sible to anyone with basic 3D printing capa­bilities.” A further advantage is that the clip-on enables both bright-field and dark-field micro­scopy tech­niques to be under­taken. Bright-field micro­scopy is where a specimen is observed on a bright background. Con­versely, 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,” 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. Our mobile micro­scope can be used as an inex­pensive and portable tool for all types of on-site or remote area moni­toring.”

Water quality, blood samples, environ­mental obser­vation, early disease detec­tion and diagnosis are all areas where this tech­nology can be easily used to good effect. Orth sees signi­ficant benefit in developing countries for the device. “Powerful micro­scopes can be few and far between in some regions,” he says. “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.”

To ensure that this tech­nology can be uti­lised the world over, the files for the 3D printing of the micro­scope clip-on are being made freely available. “Ideally, a phone micro­scope should take advantage of the inte­grated flash found in nearly every modern mobile, avoiding the need for external lighting and power. It should also be as compact and easy to assemble as possible. It is this design philo­sophy that inspired us in the develop­ment of this add-on clip,” says Orth. The new phone micro­scope has already been tested in a number of areas, success­fully visuali­zing samples ranging from cell culture, to zoo­plankton to live cattle semen in support of livestock ferti­lity testing. (Source: CNBP)

Reference: A. Orth et al.: A dual-mode mobile phone microscope using the onboard camera flash and ambient light, Sci. Rep. 8, 3298 (2018); DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-21543-2

Link: Smartphone Microscope, ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics CNBP, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

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