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Sub-$1 3D-printed microscope turns phones into science tools

Your next great scientific discovery is a 3D printer and less than $1 worth of materials away when you print your own smartphone microscope.

3D-printed microscope
This little device costs just pennies in plastic. Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Smartphone cameras are great for a lot of things, but they're not designed for getting super-duper up close with tiny objects like salt crystals or blood cells. You can give your mobile device a helping hand, though, and open up a world of microscopic adventures. It's not going to cost you much, either. You just need a 3D printer, a glass bead and some free files from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The microscope consists of a 3D-printed clip and a glass sphere. Put them together, slide the gadget over the camera lens of your smartphone or tablet, and you get a cheap, but very functional microscope. The glass beads used in the project are the same kind used in reflective pavements markings at airports.

PNNL suggests starting your explorations with the 100x version of the microscope to familiarize yourself with the system. It takes more effort and practice to get good, clean images with the higher-magnification versions, so training wheels makes sense. If you master the entry-level microscope, you can then move up to 350x and even 1000x versions.

Printer files for multi-platform and iPhone 5S-specific applications are available to download. The PNNL researchers say they've gotten their best results with the 5S, but that the microscope works well with other devices, including tablets.

Among the cool things that can be identified with the 1000x microscope are plague cells and anthrax spores. The lower-power 350x version can peer into blood samples to see parasites. If you're not impressed, then you need to turn in your Bill Nye the Science Guy fan club card right now.

This cool scientific instrument was inspired by a need of the Department of Homeland Security for what PNNL describes as "rapid bio detection technologies." This includes first responders reporting to a scene to investigate things like mysterious white powders. The microscope had to be extremely inexpensive in case of contamination issues so it could be thrown away without tossing a chunk of a government budget with it.

The super-cheap microscope is bound to enable some pretty sweet school science projects, but it could just as easily find a home in the traveling kits of professional scientists or land in the hands of the science-curious public.