Frugal Science: Improving Health Across the Globe

Troy Brown, RN

Disclosures

June 15, 2017

In This Article

Foldscope: A Paper Microscope

During field trips to developing countries, Dr Prakash and Jim Cybulski, PhD, often saw large, expensive microscopes sitting around unused, either because people were afraid they would break them or because the instruments were already broken. So Drs Prakash and Cybulski coinvented an inexpensive paper microscope.[4]

The Foldscope is made mostly of waterproof paper and comes ready to assemble, in a kit that contains parts for two microscopes and other accessories (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 2. Foldscope assembly.
Photo by Manu Prakash. Image courtesy of Stanford Frugal Science

Dr Cybulski (then a PhD student in mechanical engineering in Dr Prakash's lab) and colleagues described in PLoS One how their microscope was constructed.[5] "The Foldscope is an origami-based optical microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper in under 10 minutes," the researchers wrote. "Although it costs less than a dollar in parts, it can provide over 2000× magnification with submicron resolution, weighs less than two nickels (8.8 g), is small enough to fit in a pocket (70×20×2 mm3), requires no external power, and can survive being dropped from a 3-story building or stepped on by a person. Its minimalistic, scalable design is inherently application-specific instead of general-purpose, providing less functionality at dramatically reduced cost."

Although Dr Prakash hopes the Foldscope will benefit those living in developing countries, he also wants to get them to as many children around the world as possible, to encourage their curiosity. "[W]e believe that every kid in the world should carry a microscope in his/her pocket...just like a pencil," according to information on the Foldscope website.[4]

Since 2013, he has already sent free microscopes to 50,000 people in 135 countries and is working to distribute 1 million more. Dr Prakash has set up a website where users can share their findings and collaborate.[6,7] So far, people have used the microscopes to "identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India and to catalog the biodiversity of soil arthropods in the Amazon, detect fake currency and medicine, follow toxic blooms, detect bacteria in water samples, [and] map pollen diversity in a city landscape, among thousands of other things."[4]

Although the Foldscope is designed to be a stand-alone instrument, it comes with magnets so that it can be coupled to a smartphone to record images and movies. This will also allow it to be used for smartphone-based diagnostics and telemedicine[5] (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Foldscope coupled with smartphone.
Photo by Jim Cybulski. Image courtesy of Stanford Frugal Science

Dr Prakash recently demonstrated some of his inventions to a group of retirees, according to an article in the Spring 2017 issue of Stanford Medicine.[8] When asked whether he hoped to make a great deal of money with his inventions, he said, "This is a philosophical question I think about. We do file patents, but we decided that we wouldn't evaluate our success by money, but by how many people are carrying these tools in their hands."

The story of the Foldscope—how it is made and how it is used—is available in this video.

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