Just $0.01 Can Get You an Oven-Baked Microscope Lens

A breakthrough discovery could have profound implications for medicine and consumer tech.

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Scientists have discovered a staggeringly cheap way to make microscope lenses: baking polymer drops in an oven. The total cost for one of these lenses? Less than a cent.

Researchers at Australian National University deposited a single drop of polydimethylsiloxane—the stuff used to make contact lenses—on a microscope cover slip and inverted it. Gravity forced the drop into a perfect curvature, and after baking the slide at just 158ºF, the drop hardened into an operable microscopic lens.

“By successively adding small amounts of fluid to the droplet, we discovered that we can reach a magnifying power of up to 160 times with an imaging resolution of four micrometers,” said Dr. Steve Lee of the ANU Research School of Engineering, in a statement.

For some, the discovery promises a revolution in science and medicine in the developing world. Dr. Lee is now working with Dr. Tri Phan of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney to develop a lightweight frame to hold the lenses—ideally one that could be 3D-printed. This will allow the lens to be installed in mobile devices, including smartphones.

“This is a whole new era of miniaturization and portability,” Dr. Phan said in the press release. “Image analysis software could instantly transform most smartphones into sophisticated mobile laboratories.”

Such an application might have further use for field medicine, high-tech agriculture, and so-called “citizen science.” If mobile devices can be equipped with high-resolution microscopes, users may be able to observe and self-diagnose skin conditions or infections.

The research comes on the heels of another “techno-scientific shortcut.” Earlier this week, researchers in the U.K. and Ireland showed how the super material graphene can be cheaply produced using simple household items.

Let’s hope 2014 continues to be a breakthrough year for science and technology.

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