A microscope developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and made for pennies could be used by a doctor visiting Africa this year to quickly assess samples in the field.
Already, it is popular with some Mid-Columbia school children. And it is handy for local scientists, who have been known to pull one out to take a closer look at something in their day-to-day lives.
The technology developed at the Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland allows anyone with access to a three-dimensional printer to make a microscope using publicly available design specifications to attach to their smartphone or electronic tablet.
The lab won two 2017 awards from the Federal laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, including one for the mini microscope.
“The ability to look at microscopic organisms easily without having a big bulky microscope is a beautiful thing,” said Janine Hutchison, a PNNL scientist.
The microscopes, which fit neatly over the end of smartphone, were developed with national security in mind.
The intent is to make it available to everyone.
Janine Hutchison, PNNL scientist
They are so small that firefighters or police can carry them for quick identification of a suspicious substance, such as a powder sample that might be anthrax, avoiding the delay of taking samples back to a laboratory.
But PNNL scientists saw other uses when the design was made public in 2014, including medicine in remote locations.
One research doctor from Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland requested a microscope to support a Doctors Without Borders effort in Africa, PNNL said. He plans to use the microscope this year.
A decision to make the microscope plans publicly available at no cost cut months, perhaps years, from the process of transferring it to actual use in the field or the classroom.
“The intent is to make it available to everyone,” Hutchison said.
Anyone with a smartphone and access to a three-dimensional printer can make the housing for the cost of a few cents worth of plastic in 10 to 15 minutes. The housing is used to hold a 1-cent glass bead, with the size of the bead determining whether the magnification is 100 times, 350 times or 1,000 times.
It’s a handy device for a curious person to have on hand.
Plans and information for making a smartphone microscope are posted at bit.ly/PNNL-microscope.
During one of this winter’s snowstorms, Hutchison came out of a grocery store to see big, fluffy snowflakes landing on her car.
She pulled out her microscope and “in two seconds I was looking at the structure of the snowflake,” she said.
The distribution of the the microscope printing plans have taken on a life of their own, with no way of tracking how many have been made and used. Not only are they posted by PNNL at bit.ly/PNNL-microscope but they also are available on 3-D printing websites.
The microscope has been handed out at conferences with focuses ranging from education to public safety.
“The biggest impact we’ve had with the smartphone microscope is in STEM (education),” Hutchison said. “Everyone always is on their phone. This gives them the ability to see the microscopic world around them.”
It can be used by students to get an up close look at a a bug or a leaf. It’s also been used as part of a formal curriculum.
Lorianne Donovan, a fourth grade teacher at Finley Elementary School, had students use one of the microscopes after reading A New Coat for Anna, which follows a mother’s efforts in hard times to obtain wool and then have it made into a coat for her daughter.
It was absolutely amazing how they could identify it and support those claims with evidence.
Lorianne Donovan, Finley Elementary teacher
Students used a microscope attached to an iPad to inspect materials covered in the story, looking at raw wool, yarn and fabric and describing how they could be identified.
“It was absolutely amazing how they could identify it and support those claims with evidence,” Donovan said.
The low-cost microscopes also might be useful for students in developing countries, PNNL said. School systems there may have few or no microscopes, but cellphones may be available because of the lack of land lines.
The second Federal Laboratory Consortium award given to PNNL this year was for software to assess and address cyber and physical security issues.
The Physical and Cyber Risk Analysis Tool, or PACRAT, discovers potential vulnerabilities by analyzing how cyber and physical systems affect each other and identifying vulnerabilities not found by looking at the systems independently.
Such attacks have been the plot of movies, with a tech savvy geek hacking into a security system to allow a stealthy intruder to slip undetected into a building. In the real world, these types of attacks could cause black outs, identity theft, data breaches and more, PNNL said.
The software has been licensed to RhinoCorps of Albuquerque, N.M., which plans to integrate it into a system that allows customers to evaluate security risks.