A new kind of microscope

I heard about a new kind of microscope that you might find fascinating. It is made out of a sheet of paper and some spare parts, and costs about a dollar to fabricate. While you can’t yet buy one of them (the company is still ramping up), it is an intriguing idea.

I was thinking about when my parents bought my brother and me a microscope and a telescope when we were younger. I think that is one of those childhood events that triggered a lifetime of science exploration. We spent hours combing the backyard for specimens, and of course looking into various neighbor’s windows. Since we lived in the suburbs and every home was two stories, we eventually turned to the heavens to see stars too. Years later, I had a chance to meet an actual astronomer and got to visit his observatory and see a real telescope in action: that was a thrill.

Anyway, the $1 microscope is a product of a research project at Stanford University called a Foldscope. It gets its name from the fact that you have to cut and then fold the paper pieces in various ways to assemble it properly (shown below). How does it work? The Foldscope uses what is called ball lenses, which look like costume jewelry but are precision lenses that are created when a special optical-quality glue is applied. The researchers have found that the origami action can be carried out to quite close tolerances, and of course make it easier to ship the microscope to places where they haven’t been seen. Think if your typical airline magazine would include one instead of that silly dollar bill origami that they have been printing for years.

And these aren’t just for kids, although that is certainly one important application. I didn’t quite understand all the details, but apparently you can create a pretty good quality scope out for a buck, which I guess is the point. You can read an academic paper describing the Foldscope in detail here.

There are lots of other ways to build microscopes, including out of Lego bricks or using your cellphone’s camera or even a drop of water for a lens, and you can find references to them here. And of course there are various biology courses online that will teach you more about microscopy if you want to learn from some of the best college professors in the world too.

It is hard to imagine what the next generation of kids will think of all of this, but I find it pretty exciting!

3 thoughts on “A new kind of microscope

  1. Interesting article. It so happens that there is a
    device that I am working on which creates a
    washing machine out of a single sheet of paper.
    But this machine will only wash the dirty diapers of
    politicians. I anticipate a brisk demand,

    David, keep writing those fine articles.

  2. Unbelievably interesting. My brother and I also had microscopes and binoculars when we were kids and spent many hours looking at everything we couldn’t see. No doubt it fueled a longterm interest in science. I look forward to trying one of these tools out. Origami, combined with 3D printing could provide amazingly useful tools at unbelievably low cost.

    • It is actually simpler than 3D printing — the lens is a spot of glue that forms on the paper in the right place, I believe. Glad you like this idea.

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