The smartphone microscope is a sleek, simple, and inexpensive way to turn a smartphone into a cost-effective, portable, and powerful microscope.
The inexpensive and mobile device, developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), allows anyone with a smartphone to effortlessly explore the world’s tiniest and most fascinating objects, ranging from bacteria to grains of sand. Its streamlined design easily slips over the vast majority of smartphones. The microscope’s lightweight housing can be 3D printed at home or with a commercial injection mold machine.
The device’s lens is an inexpensive glass bead that’s often used in reflective pavement markings. It’s also easy to use: The microscope slides over a smartphone camera, an object is held up against the microscope, and the magnified object is displayed on the phone screen.
Users—ranging from first responders, scientists, health workers and science educators—take pictures and share the images via email, text message, or social media. Being able to quickly share images speeds up collaboration and problem solving, including identifying a suspicious powder or a disease-causing pathogen. All of these benefits are remarkably affordable as the microscope costs as little as 5 cents.
To get the smartphone microscope into the hands of those who needed it as quickly as possible, PNNL decided against the traditional and sometimes time-consuming commercialization path of patenting and licensing its intellectual property.
PNNL researchers initially developed the smartphone microscope to reduce the time needed to identify suspicious powders, but it soon became obvious the device had greater utility. As a result, the development team worked with its commercialization staff to determine the quickest, most-effective way to allow public access to the technology.
To get the smartphone microscope into the hands of those who needed it as quickly as possible, PNNL decided against the traditional and sometimes time-consuming commercialization path of patenting and licensing its intellectual property. Instead, PNNL staff translated their device’s design specifications into an easy-to-use file format they posted online in 2015, where it is widely accessible and has been downloaded more than 420 times, enabling anyone with a 3D printer to make it themselves. PNNL also partnered with Plastic Injection Molding to sell pre-made copies of the device.
The strategic and unique decision to not patent or license PNNL’s smartphone microscope cut out months and even years from the technology transfer process, enabling the public to access this valuable tool much sooner. The breadth and depth of the device’s impact has been substantially expanded as a result.