Unleash the curious explorer in you : Foldscope

Will you believe it if I say that you can have a microscope in your hands right now, that too in less than a dollar? Will you believe it if I say that you carry it around in your pocket? Or does all of this sound too incredible, too good to be true? Hold your breath people for all of it is true! Behold the Foldscope – world’s first ever origami paper microscope!

What is the Foldscope?

The Foldscope is a portable and ultra-low cost microscope made from common materials such as paper. Foldscopes are printed on A4 sheets of paper and are polymer-coated for durability. The sheet is marked with patterned perforations which are color coded to help point out the ‘scope’s components. This is designed as such to assist the user in the task of assembling it, which only takes several minutes. Foldscope, unlike traditional microscopes, is not at all complex and has just five parts: a poppy-seed-sized spherical lens made of borosilicate or corundum, a light-emitting diode (LED), a watch battery, a switch and some copper tape to complete the electrical circuit, are pressed into or bonded onto the paper. Despite its simple construction, Foldscope is a real tool of science, with magnification and resolution sufficient for imaging live individual cells, cellular organelles, embryos, swimming bacteria and much more. It has two versions a high-resolution version that costs less than a dollar and offers a magnification of up to 2,100 times and a resolving power of less than a micron, and a lower-spec version (up to 400x magnification) costing less than 60 cents.

“We live in a world where a majority of life forms are actually invisible to our naked eye”, says Manu Prakash, the brains behind this incredible invention. The microscope is one of the most important contributions from the field of science. But they are very expensive having high maintenance costs. Due to this reason, most of the research laboratories in the less developed parts of the world can’t afford one to identify pathogens that kill thousands every year.  This was motivation enough for Manu Prakash, a bioengineer at Stanford University, who wants to promote the concept of ‘frugal science’. Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski, a former Ph.D. student in his lab are the co-inventors of Foldscope, the central idea behind which was to make scientific tools as accessible to as many people as possible. They have made it possible through a smart fusion of physics, mathematics, and design.

Manu says, “In some countries, people don’t believe in germ theory…Even in this country, there are people who don’t believe evolution. But when you have a tool that allows you to give a demonstration right in front of your eyes, it changes your perception because it’s all about facts. The goal was to see: if we give tools to enable these passionate people, will they be able to transcribe that into progress?” Because sophisticated microscopes cost almost about half a million pounds. 

“For training it is simple, people don’t have to worry about too many knobs, there is only one way to operate it”, Manu said. The whole device weighs less than 10 grams, capable of fitting in one’s pocket, requires no external power and takes standard microscope slides. Sliding and flexing the Foldscope can be done with thumb and fingers enabling the user to move a slide around and then focus on the relevant bit of it. The Foldscope can be adapted, by fitting it with a more powerful LED, to project what it sees onto a screen, and the design can be modified to accommodate multiple lenses or filters. Moreover, to emphasize its sturdiness, Manu says, “You can throw it in water, stand on it, jump on it and throw it from a five-storey building”, but it’ll still work just fine!

Traditional microscopes are often very complex having an array of functions. But what is important is that most diseases have specific research requirements. For instance, tuberculosis is diagnosed in the fluorescence mode whereas malaria requires a high-resolution microscope to be diagnosed. “In Kenya, there are not enough anti-malarial drugs but even still they are given blindly. They are being overused because people are so scared,” he said. Besides the obvious waste, it also could mean that the parasites which cause the disease become immune to some of the drugs on offer. Manu thinks that the Foldscope’s contribution in diagnosing tropical diseases can be huge. Knowing what in particular is responsible in case of a specific disease can prove to be really helpful in choosing the treatment for it. This vision could transform into a reality if local health centers, non-government organizations had high-quality microscopes on hand that could diagnose common and life-threatening illnesses feasibly. Keeping this vision in mind, Manu and his team have designed 12 microscopes, each suited to meet the demands of a particular disease.

The Foldscope pilot program at PrakashLab began in 2014 with support from the Moore Foundation. It awarded Dr. Prakash’s laboratory $757,000 to manufacture and distribute Foldscopes to people who submit a question they would like to use the instrument to help answer. In the two weeks after the March 11 announcement, more than 8,000 applications had been received. Since its genesis, right from the phase 1 of this project (at PrakashLab, Stanford University), almost five years ago, they built, designed and shipped (free of any cost) 50,000 Foldscopes to people(kids, teachers, home-school moms, classrooms, naturalists, gem collectors, bee-keepers, tribal kids, camel herders, space scientists, parasitologists, scrap-metal collectors, and so on) around the world in 135 countries and asked recipients to contribute findings to an online community. The global distribution of Foldscopes divulged an astonishing diversity of applications of the tool. For instance, Foldscopes were used by school kids in Tanzania to explore local water quality as a part of Project SHINE, a sanitation literacy project through the University of Calgary, they were used to identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India and to catalog the biodiversity of soil arthropods in the Amazon, to detect fake currency and medicine, detect bacteria in water samples, among thousands of other things.

After receiving such an overwhelming response from people all over the world, Foldscope creators want to step up their game by developing a better version of it. The new version of the Foldscope will supposedly have a higher magnification than the first version and will include certain enhanced features, such as a field of view locking mechanism that will allow the user to show a sample to someone else without losing the focus. It will also have pseudo-phase contrast and dark-field illumination—essentially, filters that will give contrast or illumination to samples so that they are easier to see. All of these upgrades were developed from user feedback, much of which was documented on a community platform called Microcosmos. Their next target (phase 2) is to distribute one million Foldscopes by the end of 2017. To meet this end successfully, Foldscope has the ‘Kickstarter campaign‘- an initiative to expand the reach of the instrument by donations of kits to individuals, schools or organizations, and nominations for potential recipients.

The mission of the co-inventors of the Foldscope is to bring science to everyone’s daily life and by everyone they “mean everyone, grandpa, mom or that cousin who never really liked science”. By unshackling microscopes from lab benches and making them affordable for all, everyone can start viewing the world beyond the reaches of the naked eye, whether it is “a racing heart of a microscopic animal or wonder what’s that little thing in your water”. Manu hopes to put paper microscopes in the hands of every child in the third world countries, helping them to see for themselves such things as “the bee stinger that got your thumb” or “watching bacteria from your mouth”. He believes that by delivering laboratory instruments that are powerful, yet inexpensive, he can become the Johnny Appleseed of the scientific world by efficiently spreading the reach of science throughout the globe.