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You can now easily build a low-cost microscope that uses off the shelf parts and is as powerful as commercial microscopes costing thousands of times more. Meet the brilliant modular UC2 microscope system.

UC2 microscope system

This is definitely one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen. A open source microscope that uses a modular design letting you build a low-cost microscope using off-the-shelf parts and a 3D printer – and it’s as powerful as microscopes costing thousands of times more! The design of the UC2 system is so effective and efficient (and ingenious), some believe it may become the microscopy equipment of choice even for professional biologists.

The development of the UC2 microscope system

A research team from the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology in Jena, Germany set out to build a modern microscope to use for biological imaging that was efficient and effective. Such a microscope would be especially useful today in the fight against infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Currently, the problem with hi-powered microscopes required for this type of research is the price. Microscopes capable of viewing moving cells in a culture can cost thousands of dollars. So they developed an innovative method to create a microscope that is low cost but can still deliver high-resolution images comparable to commercial microscopes that cost thousands of times more.

Their new open source microscope uses a module system they call UC2 (“You see too”). It consists of 3D printable cubes, about 2-inches wide, that can host a wide variety of individual components like lenses, mirrors, illumination lights, displays, or cameras. The components are mounted inside the cube which then aligns and attaches to a 3D-printed baseplate to create the final microscopy instrument.

Componentized cubes can be mixed and matched in an endless number of configurations to create very specialized types of microscopes. For instance, you can create a projector microscope, a spectrometer, a fluorescence microscope, or a smartphone microscope. You can even create the “reverse” of a microscope – a high-powered telescope! All plans and software are openly published on GitHub making them freely available to everyone.

Why a modular microscope?

The modularity of the UC2 equipment means low-cost off-the-shelf parts can be used in the system. For instance, the mirrors can be bought directly from Amazon for about $30. The LED lights can be purchased as a LED matric for about $15 from Mouser or other online electronic stores. And popular micro-controller hobby boards like the Rasberry Pi, Adafruit, or Arduino can be used as low-cost controllers for more elaborate scopes.

An even bigger advantage for scientists is, oddly enough, is the microscope’s ease of cleaning and disposability. Helge Ewers, Poforessor of Biochemistry at the Free University of Berlin explained:

“The UC2 system allows us to produce a high-quality microscope at low cost, with which we can observe living cells in an incubator. Commercial microscopes that can be used to examine pathogens over a longer period of time cost hundreds or thousands of times more than our UC2 setup. You can hardly get them into a contaminated laboratory from which you may not be able to remove them because they cannot be cleaned easily. The UC2 microscope made of plastic, on the other hand, can be easily burned or recycled after its successful use in the biological safety laboratory. “

Another benefit to scientists is the rapid-prototyping provided by the microscope’s modular system. Rather than purchasing dozens of different types of microscopes, components can easily be swapped out using the UC2 system.

“It is possible to quickly assemble the right tool to map specific cells. If, for example, a red wavelength is required as excitation, you simply install the appropriate laser and change the filter. If an inverted microscope is needed, you stack the cubes accordingly. With the UC2 system, elements can be combined depending on the required resolution, stability, duration or microscopy method and tested directly in the “rapid prototyping” process.”

Dare I say this microscope is revolutionary!

How the UC2 microscope system works

The coolest thing about this system is brilliant engineering behind the system. Cubes are 3D-printed, loaded with a component, and placed on 3D-printed baseplate. The cube and baseplate attach to each other using ball magnets and screws. The 3D printed baseplate has holes for the 5mm ball magnet and opposing holes on the cube for a screw. This lets the components “stick” to the baseplate so the various parts are properly aligned and stabilized.

The components are then stacked in sequence across the baseplate like this> Each box in the diagram below is a cube.

L +40 mm 
4x magnified 
The UC2 system grid layout

If the microscope design is complex or space becomes an issue, mirrors can be used so cubes can be placed parallel to each other. In the example below, an LED light matrix occupies the L cube, a lens in the MO cube, a mirror in the M cube which redirects the image to a camera in the CAM cube. The XYZ cube is a servo-based component that lets the components be motorized for movement and adjustment.

image 1
Example of a UC2 system microscope

Multiple mirrors (M cubes) can be used too as seen in this transmission microscope that uses a smartphone (Cam cube) for image acquisition.

A UC2 system microscope using mirrors to fold the beam

The module design lets you build all sorts of microscopes, including highly specialized microscopes (expensive if purchased through a commercial channel). Here’s a specialized scope one that uses transmission interferometry.

A specialized UC2 system microscope – transmission interferometry

Here’s another design – a light-sheet combined with fluorescence.

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A specialized UC2 system microscope – a light-sheet combined with fluorescence

How to build a UC2 microscope

To construct a UC2 microscope, you would first 3D-print the baseplate to which the cubes are attached. The baseplates serve as the spine for any setup you build. 5mm ball magnets are inserted into the baseplate. Cubes have opposing screws that magnetically attach to the baseplate ball magnet.

The UC2 baseplate

Baseplates can be printed in various sizes: 4×1, 4×2, and 4×4 are common. Here’s a 4×1 baseplate.

UC2 YouSeeToo - How to assemble the baseplate?
The UC2 system baseplate – the spine of the microscope

In the image below, you can see how the cube attaches to the baseplate using ball magnets and screw. In this picture, the baseplate is blue and the cube is orange and black.

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A cube attached to the baseplate

You can even 3D-print a baseplate connector to join two baseplates together in a horizontal/vertical design.

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A UC2 system baseplate connector

Example 1 – a LED matrix cube

The various cubes are fairly easy to construct too. For instance, a LED matrix cube can be built to provide illumination for the object being observed. To create a LED matrix cube, a 3D-printed cube is first created using the models in the UC2 Github library.

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Cube for a UC2 LED matrix

Other than screws and wire, the only components you need to purchase off the shelf are a $10 ESP32 microcontroller (with integrated WiFi and Bluetooth) and a $20 Neopixel LED Matrix Array. These can be easily obtained from any electronics store.

The LED matrix and ESP32 chip are soldered together and then inserted into the cube’s slot and attached with M2 screws. You can see in the picture below, the two vertical standing gray pieces are sandwiched together to create the 3D-printed slot. You can see the ESP32 microcontroller in an opening in the back of the slot

Attaching the LED matrix to the cube

Example 2 – a cube mirror

Cube mirrors are common UC2 components. The cube mirror, used to fold the beam with a mirror, is built in a similar fashion to the LED matrix discussed above. The mirror insert piece and cube is 3D-printed using the design downloaded from the UC2 project’s GitHub.

Here are the parts: The cream colored part is the mirror. The black part is the mirror insert. The orange pieces are the cube – the cube’s body and a “lid” that will be screwed on top of the cube to hold everything together.

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Parts used to create a cube mirror

A 30mm by 30mm mirror, available from Amazon for about $30, is glued to the mirror insert as seen below.

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The cube mirror insert

The mirror insert is placed inside the cube. The shape of the 3D-printed mirror insert allows it to fig snugly in the corner of the cube. The cube “lid” is screwed on to hold the mirror insert in place like this.

image 3
An assembled UC2 system mirror cube

Example 3 – a camera system

A camera system allows you to take pictures of the structures you are examining through the microscope. In the UC2 system, hi-quality cellphone cameras and Raspberry Pi cameras are commonly used. Below is a camera cube containing a Raspberry Pi camera sensor. The camera sensor is placed in an adapter which inserts in the 3D-printed base cube.

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UC2 system camera cube

Here are the parts that are used to build a Raspberry Pi camera cube. The black piece is the camera adapter. The orange pieces are the cube (base cube body and a “lid” that is screwed on to hold everything together). The white piece comes with the Raspberry Pi and is used to remove the camera’s lens. The small black piece with attached ribbon is the Raspberry Pi camera sensor.

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Parts used to build the camera cube

The camera is inserted into the camera adapter and held in place using M2 screws. The camera adapter is then placed in the cube body and the lid attached with more M2 screws to hold everything in place.

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An assembled UC2 system camera cube

Example 4 – in-incubator microscope

The UC2 system lets you build complex microscopy equipment. Guided by your imagination, practically anything is possible Below is a design for a in-incubator microscope.

Design for an in-incubator microscope

And here’s what the microscope looks like when assembled.

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Assembled UC2 system in-incubator microscope
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Assembled UC2 system in-incubator microscope

More information

It wouldn’t be out of line to call the UC2 system revolutionary. With the UC2 system, low-cost, easy-to-assemble microscopes can now be obtained by an home users and people in underdeveloped countries who otherwise cannot afford specialized microscopy equipment.

You can read more about the UC2 microscope system from the official website or get materials (including tutorials) from the UC2 github.