Sleek, flat microscope could detect skin cancer

Fraunhofer Institute unveils microscope that turns traditional scanning approach on head, using several tiny lenses to simultaneously scan one image instead of one lens to scan many.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
The ultrathin microscope can capture high-res images of objects the size of a matchbox. Fraunhofer IOF

While microscopes might be affixed to cell phones, they don't usually look like them. But it seems the researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Germany got the designer bug when they developed this one.

In this case, though, form is actually following function. The microscope is flat because it has been entirely rethought, with several tiny lenses to simultaneously scan one image instead of one that scans and then groups together many images.

"Our ultrathin microscope consists of not just one but a multitude of tiny imaging channels, with lots of tiny lenses arrayed alongside one another" Dr. Frank Wipperman, who managed the team, said in a news release. "Each channel records a tiny segment of the object at the same size for a 1:1 image."

Tiny indeed. Each slice is a mere 300-by-300 µm² in size, and a computer program assembles all these tiny, neighboring image slices into one overall image. And with an optical length of 5.3mm, the device as a whole can be unusually flat.

The team says the imaging system consists of three stacked glass plates with those tiny lenses applied to both the top and bottom of each. With an image size of 36-by-24 mm², it can capture matchbox-size objects in a single pass. Possible applications: taking high-res images of skin to detect malignant cells, or even verifying the authenticity of documents.

The team will present the prototype microscope at the LASER World of PHOTONICS trade fair in Munich in late May. Series production of the device could begin in one to two years.