Little device, big magnification.
Little device, big magnification. Photograph by Brian Klutch

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Imagine a world where every child owns a microscope. A clever new method to fold the instrument from a single sheet of paper may bring that dream closer to reality.

In the Foldscope, invented by Stanford University engineers, creased paper creates a scaffold, which holds a lens and an LED in alignment. A microscope slide sits between them. As users peer at the sample, they flex the paper to adjust the lens and change the focus. The simple assembly can magnify objects more than 2,000 times.

Lead developer Manu Prakash originally saw the Foldscope as an inexpensive way to diagnose disease in developing countries. But he soon realized it could also help excite a new generation of scientists. “You learn to appreciate the microscopic cosmos by actually exploring it yourself,” he says.

To arm aspiring scientists with a crowd-sourced manual of experiments, the inventors launched a beta test. More than 11,000 applicants from 130 countries—ranging from six-year-olds to Nobel Laureates—volunteered to fold their own microscopes and use them for an original research project. They plan to study bee parasites, identify “micro-fossils” the size of sand grains, and more.

Reproducing those experiments, Prakash hopes, will inspire students to then make their own discoveries. “In my mind, every biology book should have a Foldscope as the last page,” he says. “Because you’re not just imparting knowledge, you’re also imparting the tools to gain that knowledge.”

The Perks Of A Foldscope

Durable. Stomp on a Foldscope or drop one from three stories, and it will survive to magnify another day.

Affordable. When components are purchased in bulk, a Foldscope costs only 57 cents. High-magnification lenses add another 40 cents.

Portable. The paper microscope fits in your pocket and weighs less than a pencil.

**Makeable. **It takes about 10 minutes for a novice to assemble a Foldscope. The inventors can do it in just a few minutes.

For more information on Foldscope assembly, check out Prakash’s PLOS ONE paper, or watch the video below.

An Origami Microscope For Less Than a Dollar

What can you see through a Foldscope? Take a peek!

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.