Engineers Turn Smartphones into Powerful Microscopes
Ilan Mester posted on May 07, 2015 |
Source: UH

Box a) through c) show images from a professional micrsocope and Box d) is an image from a Nokia smartphone using an engineered lens. Source: UH

Imagine if your smartphone could double as a powerful microscope, capable of amplifying images by a magnitude of 120. This could soon become a reality thanks to a new engineer-developed lens.

A team of electrical and computer engineers at the University of Houston has created a lens that attaches directly to smartphones. The device is made of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a polymer with a similar consistency to honey, which is dropped on a preheated surface and cured.

Integrating PDMS

According to the researchers, the curvature changes depending on the temperature and length of time the PDMS is heated. The group says its technology resembles a contact lens in terms of flexibility.

“Our lens can transform a smartphone camera into a microscope by simply attaching the lens without any supporting attachments or mechanism,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Biomedical Optics. “The strong, yet non-permanent adhesion between PDMS and glass allows the lens to be easily detached after use. An imaging resolution of 1 (micrometer) with an optical magnification of 120X has been achieved.”

To test their lens, the researchers captured the same images with their technology and an Olympus IX-70 microscope. They found that at a magnification of 120, the smartphone (with the team’s lens) performed similarly to an Olympus microscope at a magnification of 100. The group says its lens could become more powerful with the help of software-based digital magnification.

How the smartphone lens came about

Doctoral student Yu-Lung Sung was initially creating microfluidic devices with PDMS. While working on a lab hotplate, he noticed the material cured once it touched the heated surface. That’s when he decided to use PDMS to create a lens.

“I put it on my phone, and it turns out it works,” adding that each lens would cost approximately 3 cents to manufacture in bulk. In contrast, he adds a professional microscope for research purposes can cost upwards of $10,000.

Useful for students

According to Sung, his lens could have significant applications for the education sector. He says it’s a cost-effective alternative to more expensive microscopes for younger students and could be used to teach them about science.

“Nearly everyone has a smartphone,” said Sung. “Instead of using a $30 or $50 attachment that students might use only once or twice, they could use this.”

The team is currently producing the lenses in-house using a custom-made device that resembles an inkjet printer. However, the goal is to start manufacturing the lenses in bulk. The graduate students have launched an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of raising $12,000 for equipment.

For more information, visit the University of Houston website

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