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Science lab for the rest of us

The Foldscope, a bookmark-sized layered cardstock with a micro-lens, can magnify up to 2,000 times.

By: New York Times |
April 27, 2014 12:18:10 am
The Foldscope, a bookmark-sized layered cardstock with a micro-lens, can magnify up to 2,000 times. The Foldscope, a bookmark-sized layered cardstock with a micro-lens, can magnify up to 2,000 times.

Manu Prakash keeps a map on his bedroom wall that imagines what the world would look like if it were configured according to the scientific research that each region produces. Judged this way, he said, “Africa just disappears, India is small, and China is only a little bigger.”

To combat that inequity, Prakash has proposed the creation of a “frugal science”. He believes that by distributing powerful yet inexpensive laboratory instruments he can play the role of a scientific Johnny Appleseed, spreading science and medical opportunity around the globe. “Today people look at these extraordinary labs and forget that in the 1800s they could still do the exact same science,” he said, referring to major research laboratories and the work accomplished in far more modest settings. Prakash, 34, a biophysicist and an assistant professor at Stanford University, is designing laboratory tools that are significantly cheaper and in some cases more powerful than existing professional equipment.

Last month, he received widespread attention for his Foldscope, a 3D-printed microscope assembled from origami-folded paper. The microscope will make it possible for children, laboratory technicians and even scientists to have the imaging power of a desktop instrument worth several thousand dollars at the cost of less than a dollar. Prakash hopes to put the microscopes in the hands of every child in the developing world, providing them with the ability to see things such as whether their water is clean.

“I want to explore what happens to society when microscopes are a common day-to-day term,” he said. The microscope is part of Prakash’s larger vision of providing “science laboratories for the rest of us”. And that goal was further advanced earlier this month when he and a graduate student, George Korir, were awarded the $50,000 first prize in the Moore Foundation Science Play and Research Kit Competition, a challenge to reimagine the ubiquitous chemistry set of an earlier era.

The researchers produced a prototype of a chemistry “lab on a chip”, which they based on a technology known as microfluidics that involves etching and depositing pipes, valves and pumps onto a silicon chip. Prakash has been a pioneer in using microfluids rather than electric current to both act as computer logic and simultaneously manipulate materials to create chemical reactions.

The potential for these kinds of tools became evident after the Moore Foundation, established by Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, announced that it had awarded Prakash’s laboratory $757,000 to manufacture 10,000 Foldscopes, to be distributed to people who submit a question they would like to use the instrument to help answer. In the two weeks after the March 11 announcement, more than 8,000 applications had been received.

Prakash’s interest in science goes back to his childhood in India, where he and his brother were regular science-fair winners. He was 9 when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident occurred. Seeking to dramatise the need for a better way to control oil spills, he built a model tanker, filled it with oil, and then exploded it in a demonstration pool. Unfortunately, the judges were singed in the ensuing oil fire.

Prakash came to study in the US after he buttonholed the physicist Neil Gershenfeld of MIT during his visit to the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Gershenfeld recalled that after his lecture, a student “who wouldn’t shut up” descended upon him. Prakash then obtained a PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory in 2008.

With Gershenfeld, he pioneered microfluidic bubble logic, a technology that combines computing and chemistry.

Information is represented by microbubbles that move through channels that branch and switch. Unlike bits in electronic circuits, however, the bubbles can not only represent ones and zeroes but can also carry a chemical payload.

The inexpensive science tools may turn out to be Prakash’s greatest claim to fame. In February at the annual meeting for the Pew Charitable Trusts programmes in biomedical sciences  in Costa Rica, Prakash demonstrated his microscope to a roomful of scientists, including two Nobel laureates. It is made from die-cut paper, can be assembled in several minutes and can have a resolution that approaches 700 nanometres.

That makes it a potential medical instrument for imaging and diagnosing deadly bacterial diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and giardiasis. It can achieve magnification above 2,000 times using standard laboratory slide samples, weighs less than two nickels, requires no external power, can project a high-resolution image on a wall, and fits in a pocket. Prakash said that it could survive a drop from a three-storey building, and he demonstrated its strength by stomping on it.

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