The light microscope changed science and medicine forever, but in the 400-plus years since it was invented, this crucial piece of equipment has gotten pretty expensive and fragile. Manu Prakash and his team have designed a brilliant solution—an origami microscope that costs less than 50 cents to make.
Prakash first showed the idea in a 2012 TED talk, and in a research paper published this week, Prakash and his team demonstrate the reliable, precise optical capabilities of their cheekily-named Foldscope. Basically, the outlines of the parts are printed on a legal-size sheet of cardboard, with the pieces cut and folded according to the color coding. No written instructions are required. With light from an LED, a watch battery that lasts 50 hours, and a tiny lens, the handheld microscope is ready to go in minutes.
It looks like a cool toy to get kids enthusiastic about science, but there's an even better purpose for the Foldscope. The microscopic organisms that cause diseases like giardiasis and malaria can be easily identified through a microscope, with positive identification guiding treatment. A cheap, long-lasting, easily transported microscope means quicker diagnosis and treatment in places where doctors can't count on a fully-stocked laboratory.