Phase-imaging microscope in a smartphone? Possible thanks to metasurfaces

Modern medical diagnostics equipment is very expensive. For example, phase-imaging microscopes are able to make invisible aspects of a biological cell visible, finding early clues about a disease, but they are also very big and cost thousands of dollars. Now, however, scientists at the University of Melbourne managed to miniaturise this technology so much that in the near future it may actually fit in a smartphone.

New fully functional medical diagnostic devices could fit in a smartphone. Image credit: inthesky via Wikimedia

The problem with high-tech medical diagnostic equipment is that it is not attainable for many medical institutions around the world. They are big, heavy, exceedingly expensive and require costly training. Contemporary medicine is needed in remote locations of the world as well and that is why scientists have developed a miniature version of a phase-imaging microscope – the new device takes advantage of metasurfaces that are  about 350 times thinner than a human hair.

These metasurfaces contain an array of tiny rods (nanorods) situated on a flat surface. They allow these metasurfaces to manipulate the light that passes them – nanorods are arranged in such a way that even the light from the invisible spectrum can be shifted into the visible one. That is why this technology is called “phase-imaging” – the property of light or a “phase” can be changed to see details that would escape an optical microscope. The device changes invisible parts of the light to an image that doctors can analyse. 

Dr Lukas Wesemann, one of the authors of the study, said: “These phase-imaging metasurfaces create high contrast, pseudo-3D images without the need for computer post-processing. Making medical diagnostic devices smaller, cheaper and more portable will help disadvantaged regions gain access to healthcare that is currently only available to first world countries.”

Thanks to metasurfaces, this new device could be small enough to fit in a smartphone. In actual reality, it is more likely to be added to a medical device the size of a smartphone. The big advantages being compactness, easy of use and cost. While metasurfaces do not really fully replace phase-imaging microscopes, they could be adapted in a much larger geographical area thanks to their lower cost. They could make diagnostics more affordable and approachable for millions of people.

There is a great movement in the advancements of modern medicine – scientists are trying to make medical devices smaller, cheaper, easier to use and more attainable for those working in rural communities. 


Source: University of Melbourne

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