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Behold the iPhone as hi-def medical imaging device

UC Davis researchers transform everyday iPhones into medical-quality imaging and chemical detection devices using materials that cost as much as a typical app.

This iPhone microscope consists of a 1mm-diameter ball lens embedded in a rubber sheet and taped over the phone's camera. S. Wachsmann-Hogiu, et al/UC Davis

A team of physicists and engineers out of the University of California at Davis are taking the iPhone 4 to new heights--and they're not talking about No. 5.

Using materials that cost about as much as a typical app, they tricked out an iPhone with a few new tools, including a microscope, which--with the phone's camera--could identify features as small as 1.5 microns. That's small enough to identify different blood cell types.

"Field workers could put a blood sample on a slide, take a picture, and send it to specialists to analyze," says Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, a physicist at the Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology and lead author of the research to be presented in mid-October at the Optical Society's Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif.

In rural clinics in developing nations, which tend to have limited if any lab equipment, these decked-out iPhones could help nurses and doctors diagnose a range of blood diseases by not only imaging blood cells but sending data in real time to colleagues anywhere around the world for further analysis.

In addition to the microscope, which is made of finely ground glass spheres that cost roughly $30 in the prototype, researchers can also swap in a simple spectrometer that uses light collected by the phone's camera to tease out the chemical signature of materials by studying their spectra.

Their iPhone spectrometer truly is simple; it starts with a short plastic tube that is covered at both ends with basic black electrical tape. The team cut narrow slits into that tape to allow parallel beams of light from the sample to enter and then exit the tube. This spreads the light into a spectrum of colors that act like a fingerprint to identify molecules.

While it's still on the primitive side, the team says the spectrometer could be used to measure oxygen levels in blood and diagnose chemical markers of diseases.

The team points to this kind of easy-access tech as not only having the potential to save lives, but also to improve science education virtually anywhere in the world.