The hidden world that microscopes reveal, one of cells, larvae and bacteria, has traditionally only been available to those who have access to a lab or can afford to buy expensive equipment.
A new kind of foldable microscope grants that access to anyone who has $1 to spare and is willing to do a bit of origami.
The Foldscope, designed by Stanford bioengineers Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski, is printed in separate pieces on a sheet of perforated waterproof paper. The kit comes with a ball lens, button-cell battery, surface-mounted LED light, a switch, copper tape, and a set of filters. Users can punch out the components and put them together origami-style in less than 10 minutes.
The assembled product has all the functionalities of a standard microscope — it can provide 2,000 times magnification at 700-800 nanometres of resolution. And unlike traditional microscopes, the device is waterproof. It can also survive being stepped on or dropped from a 3-story building.
Prakash, who on a MacArthur Genius fellowship in 2016, debuted the device on a TED talk in 2012. Since then, the 10-minute presentation has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. After publishing a paper about foldable microscopes in 2014, the team behind Foldscope decided to build 50,000 of them and make them available to anyone who asked. Foldscopes have now been shipped to 130 countries around the world.
“That made us realise how hungry people are for science and scientific tools, not just here but globally,” he tells Business Insider.
Prakash and Cybulski took the device out of the lab and founded Foldscope Instruments with the goal of ramping up production and distribution. Their next goal is to make and ship out a million Foldscopes.
The funds they raise from their Kickstarter campaign, which launched November 2, will be used to improve manufacturing facilities, ship the products, and further develop a connected network of users. The team passed their initial goal of $50,000 in the first eight hours of the campaign, and the total is now more than $110,000.
Donors who give $18 or more to the campaign get a deluxe Foldscope kit, which they can either buy for themselves or send to a person or organisation of their choosing. Those kits include the Foldscope and a variety of accessories.
When a donor enters in a school or organisation where they want to send Foldscopes, that selection gets saved, and future donors who don’t have a destination in mine can peruse at the list and choose to send kits to any previously nominated group.
“We’re not sitting here and saying, ‘Oh give us money and we’re going to actively make these decisions,'” Prakash says. “What do we know about your local community? Probably nothing. So you make that choice, you find the public library, you engage with the school and say, ‘Here are the tools.'”
To operate the Foldscope, the user mounts the sample they want to examine on one of the included standard microscope slides, which are exactly like any other slide used in a lab. Then they just turn on the built-in LED light, and pan through the slide. They can focus the image by adjusting paper tabs with their thumbs, putting tension on the lens. The newer models allow users to lock the focus or field of view so that they can record time-lapse images or easily pass the Foldscope around.
The Foldscope’s magnified image can be viewed by looking through an opening in the device. It can also be coupled with a smart phone to display the image on screen, or projected onto a wall or table using an external flashlight.
Prakash says he hopes the campaign will help his team reach more communities that would benefit from receiving Foldscopes but might not know that technology like this exists.
“The big picture here is how do you really demystify science, and the way to do that is scientific tools,” he says. “Tools have been relegated to the few. It’s kind of like, if you read all these books and do all these maths problems, then you get the chance to make an observation. It should be completely the opposite. Let people make observations, and 10% of them will get so hooked that they will want to solve that maths equation and actually read what has been done before.”
Putting tools in new hands, he says, could have vast implications for science and human society. Any Foldscope user can join an online network that allows them to share discoveries and have conversations with others around the world about what they observe. Prakash says several new species have already been discovered that way — they’re currently considered unidentified, which is the first step on the scientific path towards classification.
“That’s very important to give credit and engage people to realise that they actually have a voice in the scientific discourse,” Prakash says.
Plus, he adds, the current distrust of science around the world — from the backlash against vaccines to the denial of climate change — is partially due to the general public’s lack of exposure to the field. It’s hard to ask people to believe in something that they don’t understand or have never seen.
“I think the biggest implication for me is if you bring scientific capabilities to people, then we can have a society that’s engaged in science, is scientifically literate,” he says. “Just like literacy in reading and writing, experiencing science should be a fundamental right.”