Jan 11, 2017 | By Benedict

Scientists from Cambridge University in the UK have developed a 3D printable microscope that can be used to test water. The device uses a Raspberry Pi and a tiny camera, and is currently being tested by British charity Oxfam, which could use it to speed up water testing in remote areas.

Tech-minded folk have long recognized the huge potential of ultra-compact, ultra-affordable computers like the Raspberry Pi. However, given that some of the most popular, talked-about, or “upvoted” examples of Pi projects tend to concern things like Gameboy emulation, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that such computers can be used to carry out truly important tasks.

Thankfully, a Cambridge University research team is currently working hard to serve up a slice of seriousness from the Raspberry Pi, having developed a 3D printable microscope that can be used to test water samples for bacteria. The device could be used to determine the safety of drinking water in remote areas.

The five researchers behind the WaterScope initiative are attempting to reduce the cost of water testing in the developing world, where many are at risk of catching waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever.

By creating a simple, open-source device that can be fabricated, assembled, and operated by non-professionals with minimal training, the researchers hope to provide a tool that will ultimately save lives. Getting to that stage, however, has been a long journey, and the 3D printable microscope is still undergoing constant testing.

One group responsible for testing the microscope is Oxfam, the UK-based international charity, which hopes to use the microscope to test water in areas where clean drinking water is scarce. But to meet World Health Organization standards, the microscope must be able to detect a single e.coli bacteria in half a cup of water.

While the new 3D printable microscope uses cheap components like the Pi and an Arduino microcontroller, its design has been carefully thought out to make the most of its 3D printed components and other parts: “Corner filleted flexure hinges are used rather than the circular cut-outs normally machined from metal, as this is a better match with the layer-by-layer fabrication method of a 3D printer,” the researchers explain.

The Cambridge researchers believe that the 3D printable microscope could be used in a range of situations, and for applications besides testing water. In their own words: “Our design has the potential to enable a wide range of experiments that are impossible with current low-performance microscopes but are difficult due to the significant size and cost of current research microscopes—time-lapse experiments requiring days or weeks of microscope time, use in constrained environments such as fume hoods or incubators, or applications in containment labs requiring disposable equipment.”

While the WaterScope 3D printable microscope can be purchased as a kit from WaterScope, it is also completely open source, with the STL files available to download through Github. With the input of other experts, the microscope could be ready to use in critical situations in a much shorter timeframe.

Being simpler, faster, and cheaper than many commercially available microscopes, the 3D printed device will hopefully be adopted by organizations and research teams—like those working at Oxfam—to perform all kinds of microscopy experiments. Until that happens, however, the Cambridge team will continue to develop its technology for a range of applications. “There is much potential for other 3D printed flexure-based mechanisms, and we intend to further investigate such applications in the future,” they say.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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