Use A 3-D Printer To Turn Your Smartphone Into A 1000X Microscope

Simple and powerful
The phone screen here shows onion cells magnified 350X. On the right is a pile of 3-D printed plastic housings. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has released printable files that will help turn your smartphone into a microscope of up to 1000X magnification. If you have access to an 3-D printer–which you may through your local library or community center–this is something you could put together in 15 minutes.

You’ll need that 3-D printer; materials for mounting the samples you want to look at on glass slides; and clear glass beads to provide the magnification. If your local community centers don’t have a 3-D printer, here’s a website where you can find people who own 3-D printers and are leasing printing time for a fee. You can find a list of mail-order companies from which to order beads near the bottom of this page. An order from this supplier costs $25 for a few thousand beads.

The free Pacific Northwest National Lab print files create plastic housings that will hold one bead against the camera lens of a smartphone or tablet. Different bead sizes will create different levels of magnification. There are different files for different devices and bead sizes.

Housing and Bead

One file prints in about 10 minutes. Find each of the files on the same page as the bead-company list.

Once you snap the plastic housing onto your phone and tuck the bead in there, all you have to do is turn on the phone’s camera to make it start working as a microscope. Hold the camera over your prepared glass slide. Here’s a video describing how to prepare a slide of onion cells.

The Pacific Northwest National Lab suggests first-time microscope-makers start with the 100X magnification housing, which requires a three-millimeter glass bead. Aligning the bead against the smartphone lens can be a challenge, so start easy. You can find other troubleshooting tips at the lab’s webpage.

The DIY microscope design came from the lab’s research into a cheap, disposable microscope that emergency workers could use on the scene. Say EMTs or police officers are called to a building where the residents have received a mysterious white powder. Could it be anthrax? Engineers at the lab wanted a device an EMT could use to take a microscope photo of the powder and send to an expert for identification. The smartphone add-on fit the bill.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory