We’ve all likely seen the amazing images possible with a scanning electron microscope. An SEM can yield remarkably detailed 3D images of the tiniest structures, and they can be invaluable tools for research. But blasting high-energy cathode rays onto metal-coated samples in the vacuum chamber of a bulky and expensive instrument isn’t the only way to make useful images, as this home-brew laser scanning microscope demonstrates.

This one comes to us by way of [GaudiLabs], a Swiss outfit devoted to open-source lab equipment that enables citizen science; we saw their pocket-sized thermal cycler for PCR a while back. The basic scheme here is known as confocal laser scanning fluorescence microscopy, where a laser at one wavelength excites fluorescent tags bound to structures in a sample. Light emitted by the tags is collected, and a 3D image is built up from multiple scans of the sample at different focal planes.

Like many DIY projects, this microscope is built from old DVD parts, specifically the pickup heads. The precision optics in these commonly available assemblies, which are good enough to read pits as small as 150 nm on a Blu-Ray DVD, are well-suited for resolving similarly sized microstructures. One DVD pickup is used to scan the laser in the X-axis, while the other head is modified to carry the sample and move it in the Y-axis. The pickup head coils and laser are driven by an Arduino carried on a custom PCB along with the DVD heads. Complete build files are posted on GitHub for anyone interested in recreating this work.

We love tips like this that dig back a bit and find things we missed the first go-around. And the equipment [GaudiLabs] lists really has potential for the budding biohacker, which we also like.

Thanks for the tip on this one, [Bill].