This $1 origami microscope could boost education and healthcare in developing nations

You remember your high school biology lab’s microscopes: heavy, complicated and expensive machines that you wouldn’t dare take home, let alone into the field. Now imagine one made of paper. The Foldscope project, which went live online today, totally turns the old-school scope on its head with a microscope that can be assembled in less than 10 minutes from paper and an inexpensive lens.

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The Stanford University lab behind Foldscope foresees it being used for education and healthcare in areas where access to basic scientific equipment is difficult. The microscope costs less than $1 and could be used to dramatically increase the number of people screened for malaria.

“Our microscope has all the little bells and whistles of a traditional microscope, but it is all implemented in a different medium,” bioengineering assistant professor Manu Prakash said in a video.

Foldscope is made of thick paper, glue, a switch, a battery and an LED. At $0.56, the lens is the most expensive part. The microscope is designed to be cheap enough that it is disposable after one use, potentially lowering the risk for spreading disease.

To work it, you place your eye near to the lens and move it up and down with your hand to achieve the right focus, just like a regular microscope. The Foldscope site showcases a few images of what you can see through the microscope at a micrometer scale:

Images taken through a Foldscope. Photo courtesy of Foldscope.

Images taken through a Foldscope. Photo courtesy of Foldscope.

MIT Technology Review reports that the Stanford team is looking at mass-production opportunities for Foldscope, which could allow them to produce billions a year. Foldscope is also looking for 10,000 people to test the microscope and help write a field manual before it goes out to the world.

“In the end, there is both a training gap and an instrumentation gap,” Prakash said in the video. “It’s the community of health workers and the community that is physically out there day to day that is going to fill up the training gap. But what we’re doing initially is providing them the tools to be able to do that.”