Dr Steve Lee has transformed the field of microscope lenses using the natural shape of a droplet. Photo: Jay Cronan
It's an invention that could put a high-powered lens in the pocket of every doctor, scientist and school kid in the world, and it all started with a spill.
Dr WM Steve Lee at first wanted to make flat lenses using a mould, but it was the unintended natural shape of droplets of the baked clear silicone he used which caught his eye.
"Some of them overflow, so they were hanging off the oven, on the side, and its a nice shape," Dr Lee said.
By using the same hanging technique and gradually combining four droplets – baked at 70 degrees – the Australian National University researcher increased the curve of the lens, which left it able to magnify 160 times with a resolution of about four microns.
While the world's best microscopes can see at less than one micron, the breakthrough is the price. With none of the polishing which conventional glass microscope lenses need, Dr Lee said his cost less than a cent to make.
"A microlens of the same grade will cost you around $300," he said.
The polymer lens can be stuck directly to a smartphone lens, which means almost anyone can have a portable microscope – which can record images – capable of viewing everything from a finger's sweat pores to cells and tiny insects.
Dr Vincent Daria, from The John Curtin School of Medical Research, told the ANU Reporter the new lens could have significant health benefits.
"It will be very useful for detecting malaria, especially in developing countries," Dr Daria said.
With a patent pending, Singaporean-raised Dr Lee said he had signed agreements since May with the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre and also received funding from ANU's Discovery Translation Fund to improve and commercialise the technique.
The young father said the most common response raised by his international peers was on the wide opportunities it posed for the education field, something he embraced.
"In education there hasn't been a revolution in bringing microscopes to everyone, because it was bounded by [cost]," he said.
"A child, under supervision, could make these [lenses] at home."