Glowscope Reduces Microscope Cost By Orders Of Magnitude

As smartphones become more ubiquitous in society, they are being used in plenty of ways not imaginable even ten or fifteen years ago. Using its sensors to gather LIDAR information, its GPS to get directions, its microphone to instantly translate languages, or even use its WiFi and cellular radios to establish a wireless hotspot are all things which would have taken specialized hardware not more than two decades ago. The latest disruption may be in microscopy, as this build demonstrates a microscope that would otherwise be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The microscope is a specialized device known as a fluorescence microscope, which uses a light source to excite fluorescent molecules in a sample which can illuminate structures that would otherwise be invisible under a regular microscope. For this build, the light is provided by readily-available LED lighting as well as optical filters typically used in stage lighting, as well as a garden-variety smartphone. With these techniques a microscope can be produced for around $50 USD that has 10 µm resolution.

While these fluorescence microscopes do have some limitations compared to units in the hundred-thousand-dollar range, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are fairly impressive for such a low-cost alternative. More details about these builds can also be found in their research paper published in Nature. Even without the need for fluorescence microscopy, a smartphone has been shown to be a fairly decent optical microscope, provided you have the right hardware to supplement the phone’s camera.

15 thoughts on “Glowscope Reduces Microscope Cost By Orders Of Magnitude

    1. If you click the link in the article of “research paper in Nature`, it will bring you to the Nature article site that includes a list of authors. The corresponding author (Jacob Himes) has a little picture of a letter next to his name, which is a link to his e-mail.

      1. The journal appears to be Scientific Reports, not Nature. Just clarifying as there is limited value in citing literature without getting the source correct. And it’s interesting to see how the private publishers behind the powerful Nature brand continue to exploit hard work and public funded research to make private fortunes.

        The use of cheap digital cameras and LEDs for microscopy is cool… Lots of fantastic hacking… If anyone can think of cheap sources of high performance long pass filters these are one of the more tricky components of fluorescent microscopes to hack… Cheap filters reduce efficiency a lot…

        1. Not sure what filter specs you need, but these have been good for my NIR imaging applications:

          Available in 15-50 nm steps up to 800 or so, and a few more past that. I’ve only used the 1000 nm version.

          Edmund optics has a similar series of filters, as well. They also have some nicer, but more expensive, filters. Thor Labs has filters that seem to be similar to the more expensive Edmund filters, at similar prices.

        2. I’ve found the Thorlabs FELH “hard coated edge pass” series to be excellent value and OD5+ which is needed when even 1% transmission of a cheaper OD2 is too much.

          1. Agreed, the Thorlabs filters are nice. The Newport filters have similar specs on paper (both list OD 5+, 90%+ transmission), but the Thorlabs filters do work a little better, especially at rejecting off-angle light (at least the 1000 nm versions, the only ones I’ve tested). But they are almost 3x the price.

            I think the Newport filters, as well as the cheaper versions from Edmund, come on thinner substrate glass, which can be helpful, but maybe not, depending on the application. And Thorlabs filters come in the retaining rings, which can be helpful, or not, just depending on the application.

  1. ” Using its sensors to gather LIDAR information, its GPS to get directions, its microphone to instantly translate languages, or even use its WiFi and cellular radios to establish a wireless hotspot are all things which would have taken specialized hardware not more than two decades ago.”

    Nice to know phones are coming with laser instead of sharks.

  2. Um, I bought a working, and far more practical, fluorescence microscope with a helluva lot better than 10 micron resolution used on eBay for a few hundred dollars years ago. Stand, light source, epi system, (a couple of) cubes, objectives, eyepieces, photo head, power supply, the works.

    Sure, you can spend $100k to buy the very newest thing from Nikon or whoever, with all the bells and whistles, and every part in pristine shape, and a personal representative to come in and give pointers on using it plus a scalp massage. But that is at the high end of the market in terms of price/capability ratio… as well as being vastly, vastly more capable than any phone hack in an absolute sense.

    Comparing the prices that way is silly clickbait.

      1. Buying used probably scales to the number of people who actually want them.

        I’m presently mad at the last place I bought a random Chinese microscope from (for spamming me, not because there was anything wrong with the product), so I’m not going to name them. But they’re easy to find. All of their brand new fluorescense packages are under $5k, and look reasonably serviceable.

        Either hundreds used or thousands new is still a lot more than $50, but it’s also still not a hundred thousand dollars. And they truly are much more usable.

    1. To be fair, the article in Nature states that “Fluorescence microscopes range in cost from several thousand to several hundred thousand US dollars”, which the “Good News” site, that Hackaday links to for an unknown reason, shortened to the “Smartphone replaces $100K microscope” click bait.

  3. Every time we wrote a grant, we budgeted for one nice piece of equipment. Usually the purchase came with full time tech support / service agreement. We also hacked and cobbled together plenty of other instrumentation. At some point there is a value judgement. Writing in a paper for publication “we rigged up this janky-ass instrument” the attempting to describe it isn’t worth it. Saying we used a Nikon Fluorescence microscope model blah blah” is way easier. And for really expensive stuff the Department would pool funds and you could book time to use it without hassle. Plus they are easier to use than having the post doc waste their time explaining over and over to everyone how to use the cobbled together “instrument”

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