Scanner microscopes are used for inspecting entire areas in great detail–looking for counterfeit money, say, or scanning a patient’s skin for possibly dangerous growths. But these microscopes typically scan by moving back and forth. This new microscope is totally redesigned, and scans an entire area at once.
Typical scanner microscopes do their work by sweeping the entire area to be scanned, recording images the whole time, and then compiling them into one concise depiction. But this new microscope, created by the legendary and restless designers at Fraunhofer (also known for growing human skin and stinky bike helmets), is different. It’s packed with “a multitude” of tiny sensors, according to the Fraunhofer press release, which each capture an image of a tiny section of the entire area. That capturing is done simultaneously, so there’s no need for sweeping back and forth–just click and done. Then some software stitches all those chunks, each only 300 x 300 micrometers big, into one image.
The device is unusually small, too. The folks at Fraunhofer basically tore up everything they knew about scanner microscopes and started over, so the way their creation works is totally different. Knowing that, maybe it’s not so surprising that the microscope is incredibly thin–the optical length (which is essentially the length of the light’s path before it hits the sensors) is only 5.3 mm, so the entire device is very small.
On the other hand, the current prototype only captures areas about the size of a matchbox. And not one of those big kitchen matchboxes, the little ones you swipe in threes and fours from restaurants. But the production seems to be pretty easy: Fraunhofer says they can mass-produce the lenses using a process they compare to “the dentist’s method of using UV light to harden fillings,” and thus be able to enlarge the microscope without absorbing too much added cost. Possible uses are as varied as medicine and governmental–one of these guys could be scanning your shoulder for skin cancer (SPF it up, guys) or scanning your passport sometime in the future.