125 Stanford Stories

NO. 70

Frugal science: Manu Prakash

$1 microscope, $5 lab kit leverage basic materials for social good

It’s important to bring open-ended tools for discovery to a broad spectrum of users without dumbing down the tools. —Manu Prakash

One challenge to providing health care in the developing world is the cost of technical equipment such as microscopes to help diagnose disease. This same cost hinders science education, depriving millions of young people in developing countries the chance to improve themselves and their communities.

Bioengineering Assistant Professor Manu Prakash rose to the challenge by devising a microscope made mostly of paper that costs less than $1. The Foldscope, as it is known, replaces the precision-engineered lens housing that is a traditional microscope’s costliest component with a paper assembly like an old-fashioned slide rule. The pattern is printed, cut and folded from a single sheet.

Microscopy for all

Using inexpensive lenses, the Foldscope can magnify 2,000 times, enough for significant health care and educational applications. Clinics in Tanzania and Ghana have used the Foldscope to diagnose schistosomiasis and malaria. Thousands of children around the globe have made their own Foldscopes to learn science.

The Foldscope exemplifies Stanford creativity in devising solutions to basic problems. Prakash is affiliated with Stanford Bio-X, which encourages interdisciplinary research connected to biology and medicine, and with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. His research interests include leveraging the qualities of basic substances, such as water and paper. The Foldscope and other products of Prakash’s lab marry his affiliations and interests to yield low-cost tools for health care and environmental protection. He calls it “frugal science.”

In September 2016, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognized Prakash’s contributions with one of its renowned “genius grants.”

Wedding old and new technologies

“The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile,” Prakash explains.

With graduate student George Korir, Prakash developed a hand-cranked chemistry tool that uses 19th-century paper punch-tape technology to power a microfluidics chip. Unlike comparable devices, this $5 tool doesn’t need electricity or batteries, and so is ideal for tasks like testing water quality in the developing world.

Prakash and his students also devised a  computer that operates on water droplets. Unlike other computer mechanisms, the droplets process both information and physical materials simultaneously. For this reason, Prakash believes the device holds potential for chemical and biological research.

When you go out in the field you feel like, ‘If I’m not making a product, then I’m not getting out to people in even the smallest possible way.’ —Manu Prakash