Inspired by the high-quality camera and powerful programming interface of the everyday smartphone, the team invented a lens that could be cheaply constructed and fitted to a smartphone, transforming it into a mobile laboratory.
Precision glass lenses are made by an expensive process of grinding and polishing. Tri Phan (from the Garvan Institute in Sydney) and Steve Lee (from the Australian National University in Canberra) realised that they could create their own high-performance lenses with drops of plastic. They placed a liquid plastic droplet on a glass slide and hung it upside down to solidify—creating a perfect optical shape due to gravity and surface tension.
The concept behind the ‘DIY Droplet Lens’ is so simple that even a child can make one at home (watch video). The lenses are formed using droplets of the polymer used to make soft contact lenses, then baking them upside down in an oven.
Costing less than a cent, the lenses promise a revolution in science and medicine in developing countries and remote areas.
Dr Lee and his team worked with Dr Phan to design a lightweight 3D-printable frame to hold the lens, along with a couple of miniature LED lights for illumination, and a coin battery.
The technology taps into the current citizen science revolution, which is rapidly transforming owners of smart phones into potential scientists. There are also exciting possibilities for remote medical diagnosis.
The tiny microscope has a wide range of potential uses, particularly if coupled with the right smartphone apps.
“This is a whole new era of miniaturisation and portability - image analysis software could instantly transform most smartphones into sophisticated mobile laboratories,” said Dr Phan.
“I am most able to see the potential for this device in the practice of medicine, although I am sure specialists in other fields will immediately see its value for them.”
Congratulations to the Garvan Institute and ANU team on their win. A full list of winners from the night can be found here