My Smartphone Is A Microscope. What Can Yours Do?

Oct 5, 2011
Originally published on October 12, 2011 8:02 am

I lied. My smartphone isn't a microscope — yet. But there are some smart physicists who want to make that transformation possible very soon, if not for you and me at first, then for doctors who don't have easy access to laboratories.

There are a lot of ways to trick out your smartphone. And if you're an eager Apple fan, the brand-new iPhone 4S will come with fancy apps that use its increasingly sophisticated camera to scan and image the world. A smartphone camera lens can measure objects, help translate words, and even tell you whether your potato chips have been caught in a food safety recall.

But Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu and colleagues at the Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis say a smartphone's camera lens can also serve as a microscope and a spectrometer, which both could be pretty handy for looking at blood samples.

A few years ago, Wachsmann-Hogiu was thinking about creating tools to help doctors do tests right at the site where they're caring for patients, something called "point-of-care testing."

He'd heard about bioengineer Daniel Fletcher's work developing a low-tech mobile microscope called CellScope. But Wachsmann-Hogiu was interested in making something even simpler. And he noticed that when water droplets formed on the top of his iPhone camera, they magnified the image. So he took a tiny lens — just 1 millimeter in diameter — and attached it to the phone to try to get a similar effect.

"With that we were able to record great microscopic images," he tells Shots. His team set out to test a range of lenses between 1 and 3 millimeters that would get different magnification. The smaller the lens, the more it magnifies.

"We found that the small lenses are good for microscopy of blood cells while the larger lenses could be good for skin and dermatological applications," he says.

A smartphone camera lens can also do cool tricks with light and blood, with the help of a simple spectrometer attachment to the phone. Wachsmann-Hogiu's smartphone-friendly spectrometer involves a short plastic tube covered at both ends with black electrical tape.

The tape has narrow slits that allow beams of light from a blood sample, for example, to enter and exit the tube. This grating smears, or spreads, the light into a spectrum of colors that doctors could use like a fingerprint to identify various molecules.

In a medical setting, the smartphone spectrometer could be used to measure oxygen levels in the blood. Levels that are too low or too high can be a clue that something else is wrong with the heart or many other organs.

So does it matter what kind of smartphone you use for these new tools? Wachsmann-Hogiu says no. In fact, even the simplest smartphone camera with 1 to 2 megapixels should be sufficient. The project's next phase is testing in the clinical setting in rural areas of the U.S. where laboratories are few are far between.

Wachsmann-Hogiu and colleagues will present their findings at the Optical Society of America's annual meeting next week. They also published a paper on their work in the journal PLoS One earlier this year.

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