Winner: DIY Droplet Lens, Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Australian National University

From Angry Birds to mobile laboratory: Turning smartphones into science labs for $2

A $2 microscope that your kids can use to explore the world and that will transform field work worldwide—from medicine to biology to geoscience.

For 400 years the traditional microscope has been bulky, expensive, and out of reach for ordinary students. Tri Phan and Steve Lee have changed that. Their patented technology, creating optically superb lenses cheaply by simply curing a droplet of plastic as it hangs upside down, has won the ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology.

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.

For around one cent their lens can magnify up to 160x—high enough resolution to view structures smaller than human blood cells. Add a simple 3D-printed lens holder and LED light source, and you have a cheap, portable, digital, web-enabled microscope with access to a powerful programming interface, and potentially, custom apps.

The device also has life-saving potential via ‘telemedicine’, particularly for patients in remote areas or developing countries, without access to pathology labs. A concerned patient could upload a high-resolution photograph of a suspicious skin blemish to a lab to get a professional medical diagnosis.

The simple, $2 device can achieve higher magnification and better image quality than $1000 devices in clinical use, and has been benchmarked against a $20,000 device.

“By making microscopy inexpensive and accessible to the public the droplet lens will inspire a new generation of amateur scientists and adventurers to explore and discover the hidden microscopic world,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said, “It could also help facilitate ‘citizen scientists’ in their study of an endless array of fields and trigger new industries. Who knows what this could lead to next”.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

The other finalists were:

  • The FREO2 team from the University of Melbourne and DETECT Australia whose low-cost, electricity-free oxygen concentrator could prevent many deaths from pneumonia worldwide.
  • Monash University’s Monash Engineering team who turned water purification on its head with a low-cost, eco-friendly system for extracting fresh water from saline water and wastewaters.

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