A Stanford professor is revolutionizing science with $1 microscopes made almost entirely of paper

Innovation Hub
Foldscope microscopes are made and ship flat.

Foldscope microscopes are made and ship flat.

Courtesy of Foldscope

Imagine your high school microscope. Expensive, clunky, filled with metal, right?

Doesn't exactly seem like the sort of tool that would be easily accessible to large swaths of poor children in India or Kenya or Chile.

And that's where Stanford professor Manu Prakash comes in. Prakash, a bioengineer, has developed a $1 origami microscope. That’s right: a paper microscope. 

The Foldscope — as it's called — is a unique teaching tool, requiring students to learn STEM skills even as they assemble it.

“The origami and mathematics of folding is one aspect. There’s the mechanical engineering of how the instrument actually works," Prakash explains. "There’s optics/physical sciences. And then there is biology which comes from exploring the microscopic cosmos.”

Prakash hopes his microscope will become ubiquitous, almost like ballpoint pens. “Every single kid in the world should have a microscope in their pocket.”

If the initial response is any indication, he may get his wish. Right now, 11,000 people from 130 different countries have already applied to get one.

The Foldscope could also serve as an inexpensive public health tool, making a real difference in places where communicable diseases and parasitic infections are rampant. 

Microscopic images captured by the Foldscope.


Courtesy of Foldscope

"Different bugs require different magnifications," Prakash explains. "Tuberculosis is around one micron or two microns. ... Schistosomiasis is a large parasite, and you only need around 400x."

He says that you can customize the microscope to deal with particular issues in a community.

“I am a firm believer that healthcare is going to be provided by people. Even though I am a technologist, I think very hard about are we giving tools to the people who are out in the field making these decisions,” says Prakash.

This interview first aired on PRI's Innovation Hub, a new public radio show that challenges conventional wisdom and showcases creativity.

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