Three ANU graduates have helped to develop plastic lenses, which can be attached to smart mobile phones, allowing the phone’s camera to operate as a microscope. The lenses could be readily applied to a variety of functions across the world. Droplets of PDMS polymer are easily transformed into the lenses through the use of a conventional oven. The engineering graduates who helped develop the lenses have also developed a lens maker device, which can produce the lenses, for the pittance of less than twenty cents each. A smartphone camera, with one of the lenses attached, can then take photos of the microscope images generated. The dedicated team who helped develop the lenses are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the technology, and lens making workshops at schools. The Kickstarter campaign lenses are accompanied by a 3D printed lens maker device, attachable mounts for using lenses of differing magnifications and LED lighting. The lenses, and accompanying equipment, fit to almost any smartphone and smartphone camera.
Kenny Cen, Rachel Watkins and David Wright, are the team of ANU graduates responsible for the Kickstarter campaign, and the classroom workshops. The team is known as SkopeIn Australia. Kenny compared the optical performance of the lenses to existing industry standard lenses, David developed the mount and lighting, and Rachel developed the lens maker device. Dr Steve Lee, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, discovered that PDMS silicone polymer could be used to create the lenses and received support from ANU’s Discovery Translation fund. The SkopeIn Australia team worked with Dr Lee during their honours year to further develop the lenses. SkopeIn Australia’s PDMS polymer lenses can be created anywhere, using the lens maker device. All that needs to be done is to drop a measured amount of PDMS polymer into the lens moulds, allow gravity to do the rest of the work, and bake in an oven to set. The SkopeIn Australia team have been actively introducing schoolchildren to the lenses, receiving enthusiastic responses. The team has showcased the lenses at the National Youth Science Forum and the 2014 Discover ANU workshops.
The major drawcard of the SkopeIn Australian lenses is their inexpensive cost. The Kickstarter campaign to fund the technology is intended to in part help with the commercialisation of the lens maker packs, this is allocated ten percent of the anticipated funding. Company registration costs are calculated to fifteen percent, classroom workshops thirty percent, and rewards to campaign backers forty five percent. The lenses are ten times smoother than existing commercial lenses. The lens maker’s design was finalised in August 2014, and the lenses were displayed in both November that year, and January this year.
DIY Droplet Lens, a team comprised of Dr Steve Lee and Dr Tri Phan, won the ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology, for creating and refining the lenses. The lenses’ technology has been patented and the lenses have received substantial media coverage.
The SkopeIn Australia team currently wish to immediately focus on the use of the lenses in schools. The lenses have received favourable reviews from prominent scientists and schoolchildren alike. The schoolchildren who are introduced to the lenses are given a hands on experience in the application of science and innovation. The lenses take students through a complete microscopy experience, teaching them about a range of sciences, and allowing them a tool to explore many more. Photos taken using the lenses allow for a compendium of images, which schoolchildren can interact with and share. SkopeIn Australia’s attachment lens array allows for lenses of different magnification levels to be used interchangeably. The lenses are capable of magnifying up to ten microns, allowing for images of minute detail.
Kenny Cen, one of the SkopeIn Australia team members, says his team welcomes the challenge of introducing the technology to as many schoolchildren as possible. “We all look forward to the challenge,” said Mr Cen. Introducing the lens technology is likely to be challenging, given the relatively slow processes which need to be completed before governments and schools can augment existing curriculums to include the lenses.
Applying different amounts of polymer to the lens maker varies the lens’ magnification, the process is simpler than most food recipes. The SkopeIn Australia team plan to create an app to enhance the learning experience for students using the lenses and attachments. Others wishing to utilise the lens technology could potentially create apps to tailor the lenses’ various uses and applications.
The lenses, aside from offering inexpensive microscopes to schoolchildren the world over, are a hobbyist’s dream. They also have potential applications in the third world, in agriculture and in medicine. The lenses could potentially provide a cheap and effective means of furnishing doctors with durable microscopes to diagnose diseases in developing countries. The microscopic images taken could then be uploaded to the internet, allowing for the ready sharing of images for various purposes, in real-time. The manufacturing process used to create the lenses can be adjusted to create lenses designed for different purposes. So far researchers have been unable to increase the size of similar lenses past a particular point, near one and a quarter centimetres. The SkopeIn Australia team is exploring the possibility of creating larger lenses.
Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia, has been quoted as saying “We want to encourage young students to embrace curiosity, and clever inventions that harness the power of everyday technology and are important tools for science.” The microscope lenses are certainly a clever invention that harness the power of technology, an important tool for teaching science to young students, and potentially an important tool for science.
Details about the SkopeIn Australia team, lenses, lens makers, and attachments, can be found via the SkopeIn Australia Kickstarter page.