Alum Invents $10 Microscope

November 05, 2013

Kenji Yoshino ’11, a Science Learning Center post-baccalaureate fellow at Grinnell College, has created a digital microscope made from a smartphone, a cheap laser pointer lens, and a few things from the hardware store. It’s a contraption that anyone can construct with $10 worth of parts, in 20 minutes.

In fact, Yoshino shows you how on YouTube, in a video shot and edited by Luke Saunders ’12, who works as an editorial fellow in Grinnell’s Communications Department.

 In its first three weeks on the Web, viewers watched the video 937,000 times.

The microscope is made of Plexiglas, plywood, bolts, nuts, washers and the laser-pointer lens. The smartphone sits on top, using its camera lens to help the process.  The wingnuts allow the user to change the focus by shifting the height of the platform holding the specimen. And, of course, it’s easy to take photos.

This scope has an optical zoom of 40x, which is great for macro photos, but using the phone’s digital zoom allows for a combined zoom of 175x. It is possible to view plant cells, see and record video of nematodes, and even perform biology lab work.

Kenji had read online about someone using laser pointer lenses to turn a smartphone into a macro camera. Yoshino decided to play with the design, hoping to improve stability and focus, and ended up discovering that stabilizing the phone and adding a light source would make the apparatus capable of subbing for a microscope.

It worked so well, Yoshino talked to Saunders — a friend from theatre productions at Grinnell — about making the video. Then the two of them presented the model at the iExplore STEM Festival, at Drake University on Oct. 29.

The primary goal of this innovation is not to make money.

“I am a major proponent of making home science more accessible,” Yoshino explains on the video.  “My goal in designing and building this phone-to-microscope conversion stand is to provide an alternative to expensive microscopes.”

“This setup is a viable option for underfunded science classrooms that would not otherwise be able to perform experiments requiring a microscope. But more than that, this device will allow people to rediscover the world around them.”

Bethany Brookshire at Student Science talks about her experience building the microscope. Learn "what happens when a foolish scientist screws stuff up. It’s the story of a DIY microscope, and how it all went terribly wrong."

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