MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now, let's take a few minutes to unfold science.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTRODUCTION MUSIC)
BLOCK: All summer, our science correspondent Joe Palca has been bringing us stories in a series called Unfolding Science. It is literally about things that fold and unfold. Today, Joe tells us how you can turn a flat sheet into a microscope.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Microscopes are extremely useful tools in science and medicine. But they can be expensive and hard to manufacture, meaning that typically only well-heeled scientists can get their hands on them. Manu Prakash of Stanford University wanted to change that. He's designed microscopes that cost less than a dollar and that anyone anywhere can make. Here's how he did it.
MANU PRAKASH: So the starting material looks really like a flat sheet of paper.
PALCA: That's because, basically, it is a flat sheet of paper. But Prakash says the paper has a thin plastic coating that makes it sturdier and resistant to tearing. Then they run the paper through a special printer that actually prints a lens on the paper.
PRAKASH: You should think of it as a drop of glue - a tiny drop of glue except it is an optical-quality glue.
PALCA: The printer also prints lines on the paper showing people where to make the folds that will align the light on the lens so the microscope will work. Prakash says it turns out people can fold paper quite accurately.
PRAKASH: So that's one of the things that is hidden in the design that allows us to make instruments that are very precise but are actually just made by people by folding a simple sheet.
PALCA: A sheet of paper costs about six cents. The lens costs between about 17 and 56 cents depending on the type of lens and the type of microscope. Add in an LED light for 21 cents, a six-cent battery, a five-cent on-off switch and a few other bits and bobs, and you've got a microscope for less than a dollar. Prakash says he expects some people will use the microscopes in schools and others will find them useful in clinics for doing simple medical tests or making field repairs on small electronic equipment. But he's sending them out to lots of people hoping they'll find things to do with them he can't even imagine.
PRAKASH: By the end of the summer, we'll be shipping 50,000 of these microscopes to 130 countries and then just watch what happens.
PALCA: Or to put it another way, see what unfolds. Joe Palca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.