Smartphones have been used as tools for scientific discovery ever since they hit the market, from add on accessories for analyzing things found in nature to citizen science apps that use crowdsourcing to classify and track species of plants and animals.
One popular idea has been turning smartphones into microscopes for studying things up close even when you're away from a lab. Most designs have involved add-on devices that magnify objects and use the smartphone's screen for examination, but researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have come up with something even better that doesn't require any bulky extra devices and, best of all, is super cheap to make.
The design PNNL came up with is a tiny glass sphere that can be clipped over the camera lens of a smartphone or tablet. The sleeve and sphere are no thicker than a phone case and the sleeve can be made with a 3D printer with materials only costing $1.00.
How powerful of a magnification could a tiny bead provide? Well, pretty powerful.
PNNL says, "Using inexpensive glass beads traditionally used for reflective pavement markings at airports, the PNNL team has demonstrated 1000x magnification, which is necessary to see tiny anthrax spores and plague cells. They have also made a 350x version, which is adequate to identify parasites in blood samples or protozoa in drinking water. A 100x version enables children to investigate common items like salt grains and flower petals in much greater detail."
The small size and cheap cost mean that these microscopes could be used by anyone from first responders inspecting suspicious materials to researchers and medical professionals in the field to school kids making their first up-close observations of objects. All three designs are available to the public here for printing. All that's needed is access to a 3D printer.
You can watch a video about the 3D printed microscopes below.