Researchers use iPhone 5 camera and LEGO to create affordable high-resolution microscope: Digital Photography Review

There are millions of old and outdated iPhones collecting dust. Researchers in Germany have found a way to turn some of those old iPhones, specifically an iPhone 5 camera module, into affordable microscopes for young students. Using LEGO, an iPhone 5 camera, LED lighting and a modern smartphone, students can build their own microscope.

Researchers Bart E. Vos, Emil Betz Blesa and Timo Betz from Georg August University Göttingen and Munster University in Germany set out to build a high-resolution microscope that wasn’t prohibitively expensive. Toy microscopes aren’t very effective, and specialized microscopes cost a lot of money, limiting their accessibility.

The researchers said, ‘Our aim is to introduce a microscope to individual students in a classroom setting, both as a scientific tool to access the micro-world and to facilitate the understanding of fundamental principles of the optical components of a microscope in a playful and motivating, yet precise approach. By basing the design on LEGO, we aim to make the microscope modular, cheap, and inspiring.’

‘Design of the LEGO microscope. (a, b) A photograph and a schematic representation of the microscope, (c) the LED that illuminates the sample from below, (d) the threaded system that adjusts the focus of the microscope by moving the objective, (e) 2 objectives containing a replacement smartphone lens with a 3.85-mm focal distance (left) and a glass lens with a 26.5-mm focal distance (right), (f) the second lens consisting of 2 acrylic lenses in its holder just below the eyepiece, (g) a smartphone used as a camera by adapting the eyepiece.’ Credit: Bart E. Vos, Emil Betz Blesa and Timo Betz

The researchers used an iPhone 5 camera module, smartphone and LEGO housing to craft a high-resolution microscope. Many people already have LEGO pieces around, and iPhone 5 lenses are quite cheap to come by. The researchers found one for under $5. The project’s full price, without including the cost of a modern smartphone, is €102 (about $120 USD). There’s a bit more to it, but it’s straightforward and inexpensive. Documentation for building your own microscope is available for free.

‘Schematic overview of the light path in the microscope. The object (here depicted as an arrow) forms an inverted intermediate image in the focus of the second lens. The second lens then sends collimated light to the observer.’ Credit: Bart E. Vos, Emil Betz Blesa and Timo Betz

The hope is that the LEGO microscope will make science more accessible to children worldwide. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn about our world, including the parts of it we can’t see with the naked eye. ‘An understanding of science is crucial for decision-making and brings many benefits in everyday life, such as problem-solving and creativity,’ said Professor Timo Betz, University of Göttingen. ‘Yet we find that many people, even politicians, feel excluded or do not have the opportunities to engage in scientific or critical thinking. We wanted to find a way to nurture natural curiosity, help people grasp fundamental principles and see the potential of science.’

‘Examples of experiments conducted with the LEGO microscope. (a) Image of a sodium chloride crystal. (b) Time lapse of an osmotic shock in red onion cells. After approximately 30 s, a 1 M NaCl solution is flowed in. Subsequently, water leaves the cells, causing the cell membranes to detach from the cell walls. After approximately 5 min, distilled water is flowed in, washing away the 1 M NaCl solution, and the cells return to their original volume. (c) Time lapse of the movement of an Artemia shrimp in water. (d) Time lapse of the movement of 2 water fleas in water. The scale bars in panels a, b, and d are 100 lm.’ Credit: Bart E. Vos, Emil Betz Blesa and Timo Betz

In addition to providing the plans for free, Vos, Blesa and Betz also published a paper about the microscope project.

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