This 3D Printed Microscope Bends for 50nm Precision

Exploiting the flexibility of plastic, a group of researchers has created a 3D printable microscope with sub-micron accuracy. By bending the supports of the microscope stage, they can manipulate a sample with surprising precision. Coupled with commonly available M3 bolts and stepper motors with gear reduction, they have reported a precision of up to 50nm in translational movement. We’ve seen functionality derived from flexibility before but not at this scale. And while it’s not a scanning electron microscope, 50nm is the size of a small virus (no, not that kind of virus).

OpenFlexure has a viewing area of 8x8x4mm, which is impressive when the supports only flex 6°. But, if 256 mm3 isn’t enough for you, fret not: the designs are all Open Source and are modeled in OpenSCAD just begging for modification. With only one file for printing, no support material, a wonderful assembly guide and a focus on PLA and ABS, OpenFlexure is clearly designed for ease of manufacturing. Optics are equally interesting. Using a Raspberry Pi Camera Module with the lens reversed, they achieve a resolution where one pixel corresponds to 120nm.

The group hopes that their microscopes will reach low-resource parts of the world, and it seem that the design has already started to spread. If you’d like to make one for yourself, you can find all the necessary files up on GitHub.

20 thoughts on “This 3D Printed Microscope Bends for 50nm Precision

  1. my jaw almost dropped when i read those specs this is really impressive although you left out a crucial bit of information: it said the OPTICAL resolution is only 2µm making that 120nm/pixel quite meaningless. this is really awesome and opens so many interesting option for future usage….

    1. I don’t agree… blurry details with many pixels are easier to process visually than blocky pixels bigger than the detail in question; you may not get a detailed shape of a tiny object, but you will be better able to tell where it is, and much easier to discern whether something is a line or edge vs. a circular blob, and how it’s moving, and that’s all potentially crucial information, such as if you’re trying to recognize bacteria or count blood cells. And well optics can be improved upon, but keep in mind, light wavelength is only 400-700nm big, so that’s going to determine the upper limit for a light microscope. 2um optical resolution and 120nm per pixel, with 50nm positioning, is pretty good for a system that is open & nearly cost-free to make. Yay! We live in the future!!

    1. I hope you just haven’t had your coffee yet & aren’t trying to start some more imperial v metric trolling.
      Both Newtons and Mega- are abbreviated with capital letters. ‘nm’ is nanometers or 1.0 x 10^-9 meters.

  2. Might have to give it a try since i have everything but the stepper sitting on my work bench. The webcam microscope is also a fun afternoon project and doesn’t require anything more than a 5mp webcam without auto focus, led light and some cardboard.

  3. Their promo video doesn’t make much sense.
    ‘We’re designing this to bring microscopes to the developing world so they can test their own water.”
    To my mind it makes more sense to develop a low cost treatment unit & just treat all water as contaminated. A simple UV sterilizer on a PV system (but that brings maintenance issues) or funding well drilling seems like a better use of resources. You’re still going to have to provide training so the end user and differentiate dangerous microbes from harmless ones. Then factor in some microbes don’t have to be in terribly high concentrations to cause health issues.

    This seems better suited to the same problem that the foldoscope project aims to help, giving schools, universities or field technicians low cost equipment.

    1. >”To my mind it makes more sense to develop a low cost treatment unit & just treat all water as contaminated.”

      You still got to see if it’s effective. Otherwise you’re just going in blind and wasting money and time the people don’t have.

      1. I’m still not sure it will be. Will it identify microbes and pathogens? Probably, if they’re in a high enough concentrations. But many things don’t need to be in high concentrations to cause health issues, if your grab sample isn’t representative then it doesn’t to any good to analyze it. Water quality changes at least seasonally. Sending some technician (local or otherwise) out regularly (every week, month quarter?) seems like an expensive proposition.
        After a threat has been identified you still have to treat it.
        There are many low cost treatment options that have easy maintenance. For the pathogens and microbes, you can kill them just by boiling the water. Now this is expensive from a fuel stand point but it doesn’t take much training to boil water or run a UV lamp like a Steripen or larger scale device. There are also options like the life straw, biosand filters, or installing deep aquifer wells.
        Simply handing out microscopes doesn’t do any good if the end user doesn’t know what they’re looking for.
        This project seems great for educational purposes but for ‘providing water to the bottom billion’ it doesn’t look like the most cost effective solution. Maybe they have some actual numbers out there I haven’t seen (entirely possible I haven’t read their whole site).

        1. The point is that you need to figure out whether your methods are adequate and effective. It makes no sense to blast everything with gamma radiation until all is dead to make sure if less would do.

          Boiling water is an expensive proposition to people with little to no access to fuel, so it’s pretty damn important to at least characterize their water source.

          And the point isn’t about handing out microscopes to people with no training. It’s to enable people to utilize knowledge in a useful manner. It’s making it cheaper to find a person who can do the analysis to figure out whether your water supply is safe to use. It makes it cheaper and more ubiquitous to do analysis rather than just waste energy to be safe than sorry.

          Suppose for example a village gets run over with a stomach bug. Where does it come from? Is the village well contaminated? Should the start boiling water and searching for alternative sources, or is it a passing infection? The answer will arrive too late, unless someone nearby has the knowledge and the equipment to diagnose the problem. Information and knowledge is cheap, but the equipment isn’t, so that’s where these kinds of systems come in.

          1. >> It makes no sense to blast everything with gamma radiation until all is dead to make sure if less would do.
            No but again these systems may not be any more expensive than paying an annual salary to a trained technician. Sterlization techniques are well understood, there’s no trial and error here or need nuke it from orbit to be sure. We know how much exposure time destroys microbes, we know what chemicals will do it. A UV lamp on your water source is a good prophylactic, most municipal water sources do this. Sand filters need low maintenance and few hard to get materials. There are already examples in the field supported by Oxfam, WHO, and approved by the USEPA.

            >>Boiling water is an expensive proposition..
            A drawback I noted. But if your choices are get sick, hike your daily water 3x as far to the next clean water source, or boil it, boiling may be the only option. There’s a significant movement to get remote villages to build methane generators which IMO is a worthwhile endeavor. There’re successful programs that teach coppicing to help stem deforestation and provide people with a reliable source of fuel (charcoal).

            >>It’s to enable people to utilize knowledge in a useful manner.
            I fully support that, but the ‘help the bottom billion’ bit seems like an unlikely scenario as presented in their video. It seems more like a way to get notice and funding. The whole reason the bottom billion are without water is due to their remoteness, the only people this will help is those that have access to an education center or if some technical expert wants to travel to these remote villages but identifying that there is a problem doesn’t do any good if you don’t pack solutions to it in your luggage.

            >>Where does it come from? Is the village well contaminated? Should the start boiling water and searching for alternative sources, or is it a passing infection?
            These are a bit much to expect from one person per village. You’re gonna need more than a person with a microscope to do more than a simple go/no-go test. If it’s come to the point that people are sick, you’re a bit passed the ‘is the water safe’ question.

        2. Livestock + humans = fuel source. Compost the waste from both to generate methane. You want an anaerobic composting process that kills or prevents aerobic bacteria from growing and runs hot enough to kill the anaerobic bacteria by the time the compost is ready to be taken out for use as fertilizer.

          Many types of bacteria in water can be killed simply by exposing the water to sunlight long enough. The simplest way is to put water in clear plastic bottles (like the bottles used for bottled water) laid out in direct sunlight for a day. On a metal or tile roof or bare, dry ground also helps kill bacteria with heat.

          The glass tubing used to make fluorescent light tubes would be ideal to use for a flowing water solar sterilizer. Get the glass before it’s made into lights. Might be some rejects that would otherwise be smashed and recycled. They’d need a protective cover, especially anywhere that may get hailstorms. (Can happen most anywhere if atmosphere conditions are right.)

          A Lifestraw filter can filter and sterilize 1,000 liters of water. I assume the flow rate through one is pretty slow. Solution to that would be to gang a bunch of them in parallel for filling a village water tank.

          Lifestraws don’t filter out salt or chemical contaminants dissolved in water, so other treatments would be required for those. http://lifestraw.com/faqs/

          A photovoltaic powered UV system for sterilizing water would be very low maintenance, especially if using UV LEDs. No moving parts and with the LEDs the light would last a decade or more. Wouldn’t need a battery, run water through to fill a storage tank during daylight – don’t put water in the tank at night.

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