ANU lens turns smartphone cameras into microscopes

An Australian National University researcher has accidentally uncovered a cheap way to turn a smartphone into a high-resolution microscope.

Silicone gel, a fine-tipped tool, a cover slip, and an oven are all that is needed to transform a regular smartphone camera into a microscope to produce high-resolution microscopic images, a researcher from the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Engineering has discovered.

The invention of the lens fabrication technique was accidentally discovered by Steve Lee, when he left droplets of silicone gel overnight in the oven that had naturally formed lens-like shapes.

"It's a simple process to create high powered lenses ... by mixing a solution of silicone gel and extract little droplets of it onto a flat cover slip, flip it over, and allow gravity to pull it into a nice parabolic shape to create a nice lens," Lee said.

"This method is different because we remove any grinding from the process that is required from making a lens.

"With this lens we can make it up to a magnifying power of 160 times and resolve structures of four micrometers."

Lee collaborated with Tri Phan from Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research to transform the lentil-sized lens into a medical imaging tool. They created a lightweight 3D-printable frame with minature LED lights to hold the lens so it could be attached to any smartphone.

Lee said the process could rapidly transform owners of smartphones into potential scientists and the possibility of its usage is extensive. The university has already received interest from a German group to use the invention for disposable lenses for tele-dermatology.

"By attaching the lens onto the smartphone what we could do now is take microscopic images on a mobile platform and transmit high-resolution images over the internet," he said.

"Having this microscope allows health workers to take images at remote sites and transfer it to the internet to doctors elsewhere. A farmer can take it to the field and put the lens and attach it to their smartphone and take a photo of the plants and send it to the lab for diagnostic."

According to Lee, the invention also addresses two key factors that often hinder the use of microscopic images: cost and integrability.

"What we're doing is distributing microscopic technology to the masses. It's quite exciting as an optical engineer and physicist that we're no longer restricted by the lenses we buy off the shelf; what you can really do now is make it at home and tailor it to your purpose," he said.

Earlier today, researchers from the University of New South Wales announced their discovery of using bionic ear technology for gene therapy. Using electric pulses delivered from a cochlear implant to deliver gene therapy, they were able to successfully regrow auditory nerves.

"Ultimately, we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound, which is particularly important for our sense of the auditory world around us and for music appreciation," said Gary Housley, director of the translational neuroscience facility at UNSW Medicine.

The research also heralds a possible new way of treating a range of neurological disorders, including Parkinson's disease, and psychiatric conditions such as depression.