3D-printed 'clip-on' turns smartphone into fully functional microscope

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics have developed a simple clip-on that enables smartphones to visualise specimens as small as 1/200th of a millimetre.

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(Image: Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics)

Australian researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) have developed a 3D-printable "clip-on" that turns a smartphone into a fully functional microscope.

Reported in Scientific Reports, the clip-on microscope requires no external power or light source and is powerful enough to visualise specimens as small as 1/200th of a millimetre. Examples of this include microscopic organisms, animal and plant cells, blood cells, and cell nuclei.

The clip-on features "internal illumination tunnels" that use light from the camera flash to illuminate the sample from behind. This is an improvement on other phone-based microscopes that use external LEDs and other power sources, which are bulkier and difficult to assemble, according to lead developer and CNBP research fellow at RMIT University Dr Anthony Orth.

"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.

"We've designed a simple mobile phone microscope that takes advantage of the integrated illumination available with nearly all smartphone cameras," Orth said. "Our mobile microscope can be used as an inexpensive and portable tool for all types of onsite or remote-area monitoring."

The microscope requires just one assembly step via a 3D printer and no additional illumination optics. The ARC researchers are sharing the 3D-printing files publicly, making the technology freely available for anyone with a 3D printer.

It also has a dark-field microscopy functionality added that allows the user to observe samples that are nearly invisible under conventional bright-field operation, such as cells in media, Orth said.

The tech could benefit developing countries that have a lack of powerful microscopes, and could be put to use to determine water quality, to analyse blood samples for parasites, or for early disease detection, he added.

Other researchers have previously revealed their more primitive attempts at transforming smartphones into microscopes; Italian startup Smart Micro Optics unveiled its lenses Blips lenses back in 2016 that transform a mobile device's camera into a digital microscope for $17.

The Blips were claimed at the time as the thinnest microscopic lenses for smartphones and tablets, and able to magnify subjects up to 30 times, or 80 times using the zoom.

The Australian National University (ANU) has also previously demonstrated a cruder version with its lens fabrication technique.

Reserachers at ANU used silicone gel, a fine-tipped tool, a cover slip, and an oven to create a high-powered lens, and developed a 3D-printable frame with miniature LED lights to attach the lens to any smartphone.

Stanford University researchers have also developed a cheap, foldable paper microscope which costs less than a dollar to create, aimed for use in developing countries.

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