Imagine a bookmark-sized device that is made of paper and can be attached to a phone to view the microscopic world-this is the Foldscope. This foldable micro-optics–embedded device costs less than $2 and has the capability to magnify an object more than 140 times its original size, with a resolution of 2 microns. This resolution is enough to view bacteria, parasites, plant structures, blood cells, etc.
Prof. Manu Prakash and Dr. Jim Cybulski at Stanford University, USA, are the co-developers of the Foldscope. Working together at Prakash Labs, they have provided a clear path forward for viewing the microscopic world, well beyond the 500-year-old conventional microscope technology. Utilizing basic principles of optics and origami, the researchers came up with the design for the Foldscope. Three essential components-an illuminator, a sample holder, and an optical viewing device are created by folding paper and then pieced together. Adding in a combination of lenses yields a user-friendly device that can be used without the requirement of external power sources. The tool, which is available for everyone, has already reached a million users spanning across ~145 countries. Apart from its popular use in science education, the Foldscope is also considered a radical new technology that might improve public health, especially in the developing world. At present, there are several investigations into its diagnostic applications in order to provide cheaper alternatives to current methods reported in scientific journals. However, real-world applications are yet to take off.
It is also amazing how the Twitter community is posting interesting microscopic pictures and real-time videos under tags like #foldscope. These allow easy access to the beautiful and intricate scientific nature of microorganisms. Access to such information also raises curiosity among students who don’t have accessibility to traditional microscopes. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India and Prakash Labs have signed a memorandum to bring the Foldscope to India. Rafikh Shaikh, a Foldscope Fellow at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai is a prolific user and student trainer of the Foldscope. He claims, “Children are curious by nature, they explore the world around them and construct knowledge. Frugal tools like Foldscope (a paper microscope) help children in their inside school and out of school explorations. As Foldscope is small and can fit in a pocket, children can carry it anywhere. Unlike a traditional microscope, you don't have to carry a sample to the lab, you can observe it on the spot. Each observation answers some questions and raises more questions feeding into a child's curiosity-driven explorations. We have seen school children using Foldscope and online community websites to understand their surroundings and also connecting it with the school science”.
Due to the inexpensive nature of and easy access to this useful technique, there could be many possibilities of scientific applications the Foldscope can offer. During a recent interview with Eric Topol of Medscape, Prof. Manu Prakash described his vision for the Foldscope, termed Octopi (Open Configurable high-Throughput Platform for Infectious diseases).“One of the big things I am excited about that is not yet public is that we will be announcing the 100 Octopi Program. One of the challenges with AI is what data you train with. Real-time data coming from the field, from the context, is always a challenge because many times the hardware has switched, so you trained on one hardware, and then suddenly it's a different hardware,” he stated. With the Octopi program, Prof. Prakash aims for high-speed detection of diseases such as malaria.
The Foldscope is on the right track to revolutionize the 500-year-old technology. Not only does this invention provide a visual treat of the microscopic world that is not accessible to the naked eye, but it also offers diagnostic use in healthcare applications. The Foldscope is definitely a scientific innovation for everyone.