A small plastic lens can be attached to smartphone to make microscopes more accessible.

Photo Credit: Derek Gavey

Photo Credit: Derek Gavey

A tiny plastic lens could make your smartphone even smarter. This lentil-sized lens can be added to your phone's camera to be used as a high-resolution microscope. 

Researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the Australian National University invented the lens, which costs less than one cent. It could help bring medical and science instruments to developing countries and remote areas where heavy, bulky and fragile microscopes are harder to come by. It also makes such instruments more accessible to schools. 

The researchers were originally trying to develop a lens that could be implanted directly into a mouse's body, but stumbled upon something entirely different. They accidentally created a droplet of polymer after leaving it unattended for a night. 

"I was going to throw it away until I looked at it a bit more closely and thought it might be useful because the shape was almost perfect," said engineer and physicist Steve Lee to The Age

Gravity naturally molds the polymer into the shape of liquid droplets, and is made from the same silicone that is used to make contact lenses and breast implants. 

Once the lens is attached to the camera lens of a smartphone or tablet, it needs to be paired with a light and can then be magnified up to 160 times with an imaging resolution of four micrometers.

"Traditionally, to use a microscope you need a lab in a centralised location if you wanted to use it for clinical or research purposes," said Tri Phan, clinical immunologist at Garvan. "This is a cheap, efficient way to make a high-quality, high-powered lens."

Such a lens has limitless possibilites. There are the obvious uses in the medical and research fields. It can also be used to help farmers check crops for pests and aid students and teachers, especially in areas where such tools are too costly.