Our smartphones already serve as cameras, flashlights, shopping assistants and construction tools. Thanks to University of Washington graduate Thomas Larson, you can now use your smartphone as a microscope.
Larson, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering last year, created a tiny lens that sticks to your phone camera and turns it into a microscope. You attach the lens, turn on your phone camera, take a microscope slide with the sample you want to examine, bring it close to the lens, and voilà, you can admire the sample on the screen in all its microscopic glory.
The adhesive, scratch-proof lens is made from a soft polymer material called PDMS. You can easily take it on and off, and wash it with soap and water if it gets dirty.
A group of UW students and faculty got to see the cell phone microscope in action during Larson’s CHANGE talk a few days ago. The talk was part of a bi-weekly series focused on using technology to help low-income communities around the world.
Larson spent more than two years developing the lens, working with a UW lab that wanted a mobile platform for studying blood clotting under a microscope.
“I started tinkering. Being in mechanical engineering was very useful because I had access to the machine shop,” he said. “With some of the earlier version, there was a problem with the lens falling off, but I think I’ve got the recipe now.”
The Micro Phone Lens is more than just a gadget. It could be used to help educate people in the developing world about sanitation.
“Just having a microscope to show people ‘look, there are little things swimming in your water, and that’s why you should wash your hands’ could have a profound impact,” Larson said.
Larson ran a Kickstarter campaign last summer to raise $5,000 for the project. He was a little surprised when 5092 backers pledged $91,524. Many people wanted to buy the lens as a gift for their kids and grandkids, Larson said. He also saw a lot of interest from teachers and the home-schooling community.
The lens Larson was selling to his Kickstarter supporters had a 15-times magnification. He has since made one that magnifies 150 times.
The idea of cell phone microscopes has been around for a few years but no inexpensive product is available on the market. You can buy Larson’s Micro Phone Lens for $15 on his website.