A 50-Cent Microscope That Folds Like Origami

December 9, 2016.
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Manu Prakash:
A 50-cent Microscope that Folds Like Origami

Manu Prakash. Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and founder of the Prakash Lab at Stanford University.  Born in India, he has degrees in engineering and computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and applied physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He has won several honours and awards, and he came up with the Foldscope, which is the theme of this TED Talk.

TED2012 1.6 million views on TED.com

Prakash opens his talk with a story, of the invention of the first microscopes—accompanied by a humorous old illustration highlighting what a ‘monster soup’ of life there is at the microscopic level.  In many tropical parts of the world a number of diseases are still prevalent. For example, malaria causes a million deaths a year and more than a billion people need to be tested because they are at risk.

The problem is that microscopes are heavy, bulky, expensive and hard to maintain and are not designed for fieldwork or diagnostics.  Furthermore, in some places that do have microscopes they are not being used effectively, or at all.

So the concept of the Foldscope came about.  It represents what has been referred to as ‘Frugal Science’—that is a way of bringing scientific tools to areas of the world with lower levels of high tech equipment, at affordable prices, and enabling local people to check their own resources, for example drinking water.


Each Foldscope is made from a single sheet of card, that can be put together by being folded like origami—and the origami format allows considerable precision with X and Y axis.  There are no written instructions on the sheets, rather colour-coding enables them to be put together correctly – that way they can be used anywhere in the world, regardless of language.

They have all the functions of a standard microscope and work with standard slides that are used globally.  There are several different kinds of Foldscope, each one designed for a specific type of disease, for example malaria, and Prakash shows how the Foldscope can also function as a projector.


The Foldscopes have an LED light source powered by a small battery and they are very rugged and can survive being stamped on, dropped from a considerable height and being put in water—as Prakash himself shows during this talk, by dropping a Foldscope on the floor and stamping on it and putting another one in water.

This is one of the few occasions when Prakash moves about during his talk, otherwise he stays on one spot, avoiding aimless movement.  However, he continuously makes eye contact with the audience by scanning across the room and thereby imparts his enthusiasm to them.

In 2012 the Foldscope was given a grant of USD 100,000 by the Gates Foundation, and in 2015 India’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) announced a partnership with the Prakash Lab to distribute the Foldscope to around 80 colleges and programmes endorsed by the DBT.

At a cost of as little as 50 cents, large numbers of Foldscopes can be made available at little cost and are so light-weight and easy to put together that even children can make them and carry them about.

This not only enables children to check the quality of their living environment, like drinking water, but also gives them an opportunity to get familiar with science – perhaps inspiring them to become scientists themselves.

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This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.

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