3D-printed attachment turns smartphones into sub-wavelength microscopes


October 8, 2013

UCLA scientists have developed a smartphone attachment that acts as a subwavelength microscope (Image: UCLA)

UCLA scientists have developed a smartphone attachment that acts as a subwavelength microscope (Image: UCLA)

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A team of engineers at UCLA has created a 3D-printed attachment that enables smartphone cameras to image particles as small as 90 nanometers. This makes it the first portable, cellphone-based imaging system capable of detecting single nanoparticles and viruses according to the researchers.

The wavelength of light measures on the order of hundreds of nanometers. Imaging objects that are smaller ("sub-wavelength") is a challenge because the signal strength and contrast become very low.

Nonetheless, the team led by Prof. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA managed to build a 3D-printed microscope attachment that can do just that.

The device uses a laser diode to illuminate samples at a steep angle of about 75 degrees, which prevents the lens from picking up most of the scattered light and increases the signal-to-noise ratio of the setup.

The scientists were able to use the device to detect single particles of the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), a common virus that can cause birth defects, measuring 150 to 300 nanometers. In other experiments specially marked nanoparticles as small as 90-100 nanometers were detected. The results were later verified using a scanning electron microscope.

The group behind this device isn't new to the field: only a few months ago, it made news for building smartphone-based systems to detect food allergens and even perform kidney tests.

This development of this portable imaging system, which is said to weigh less than half a pound (0.23 kg) and should be cheap to manufacture, may prove beneficial for various point-of-care applications such as viral load measurements, or other biomedical tests conducted in remote or under-resourced areas.

A paper published on the journal ACS Nano (PDF) describes the device in detail.

Source: UCLA

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion. All articles by Dario Borghino

A real WIN for medical care in the developing world. This is going to save lives.

Seth Miesters

Are the drawings for the device available in the Open Source world of 3D printing? If not, they should be made freely available.

This could be quite useful on the Space Station as well since they are getting their own 3D printer.


It is a very nice piece of work, but it has really very little to do with 3D printing. None of the essence of the device (laser diode and associated power supply, interference filter, lens and translation stage) is printed; only the body which holds them together.

3D printing is a huge benefit for an academic lab wanting to make a prototype of such a device and demonstrate its effectiveness. But it runs counter to real world experience to expect that even the body would be cheaper to make with printing than with conventional molding once one goes to high volume production.

Jayna Sheats
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