The Application of Foldscopes in Forensic Science Investigations

General Forensics Kanchan Dogra todayJanuary 4, 2024

Background
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Introduction

Forensic science deals with evidence that may lead to the identification of a suspect or solve the mystery of a criminal act. One of these is micro-trace evidence. Such evidence is significant due to the suspect’s lack of awareness, the ease with which it can be transferred from one entity to another, and its extended persistence. It is essential to search, identify the crime, and gather the appropriate evidence.

For a long time, many techniques such as the microscope, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and transmission electron microscope (TEM) have been used. As we all know, these microscopes are expensive, sophisticated, and intended for use in laboratories. Only biology specialists at their workplaces are permitted to study micro-trace evidence. However, there is often a risk of evidence going missing or being lost throughout the investigation during its collection, transportation, submission, or while working in laboratories.

We can find a wide range of evidence-based on the nature of the crime. Foldscope can evaluate most micro-trace evidence typically found at crime scenes, such as hair, fiber, pollen grains, human sperm, diatoms, gunshot residues, soil, any plant material, glass fractures, and many other items. The nature of fiber with different origins, whether animal, natural, or synthetic, can be differentiated using foldscope. Any foreign fiber found on the victim’s body or at the crime scene may indicate a potential link to the perpetrator. Cloth fiber, as is well known, can differ in texture, color, and diameter. Hair examinations must be performed in crimes involving wildlife or domestic abuse. A successful examination indicates gender, origin, race, trimming, level of violence, age, and species identification in cases of animal origin.

Foldscope is a low-cost origami optical microscope assembly made up of a lens and paper sheets. These microscopes have been developed to be low-cost yet highly functional, allowing them to be used by people who may not have access to typical laboratory equipment, particularly in resource-limited environments.

It was developed by a team led by assistant professor Manu Prakash of the Stanford School of Medicine. It is available as a kit with multiple lenses with magnifications ranging from 140X to 2000X and about eight grams of weight. Both dry and wet sample preparations are possible for the examination, according to the nature of the sample.[1]

Fig1: Foldscope

Key features of Foldscopes

  • Affordability: They are extremely cost-effective to produce, making microscopy accessible in various educational and research settings, including remote or economically disadvantaged areas.
  • Portability: Foldscopes are lightweight and compact, designed to be easily carried in a pocket or a small pouch, enabling fieldwork and on-the-go scientific exploration.
  • Durability: Despite being made mostly of paper, these microscopes are surprisingly robust, capable of withstanding various environmental conditions and rough handling.
  • Ease of Assembly: They are designed to be assembled easily from a flat sheet of paper with integrated optics, allowing users to fold them into functional microscopes within minutes.
  • Versatility: Foldscopes can be customized for different magnification levels and can be used to observe various samples, from biological specimens to environmental elements.

Parts of Foldscope

The Foldscope, a low-cost and portable microscope, consists of several essential components:

  • Foldable Paper Design: The main body of the Foldscope is made of paper and is foldable, allowing for easy storage and transport.
  • Optical Components: It includes optical components such as lenses, which can magnify samples to various levels, enabling detailed observation.
  • LED Illumination: Some versions of the Foldscope have built-in LED lights to illuminate the samples being observed, improving visibility.
  • Specimen Holder: There is a designated area or slide holder where the specimen is placed for observation. This can be a pre-made slide or a space for creating custom slides.
  • Magnification Adjusters: Depending on the model, there might be mechanisms to adjust the magnification levels for different levels of detail.
  • Smartphone Attachment: Certain Foldscope models come with smartphone adapters that allow users to capture images or videos of the observed samples using their phone’s camera.
  • Instruction Manual: A detailed guide or instructions for assembling, using, and maintaining the Foldscope are often included to assist users.

These components work together to form a functioning and portable microscope that may be used for a variety of scientific and educational purposes.

Fig2: Parts of a Foldscope

Applications of Foldscopes in Forensic Science

Foldscopes have shown promising results in a variety of scientific domains, including forensic sciences, because of their portability, cost, and ease of use. Foldscopes can be used in forensic investigations in several different ways:

  1. Field Investigations: Foldscopes are portable and can be carried to the scene of crime or areas where conventional laboratory equipment could be difficult. They might assist forensic investigators in analyzing trace evidence such as hair, fibers, or microscopic particles on-site.
  2. Trace Evidence Analysis: Foldscopes can be used to examine trace evidence found on clothing, firearms, and other crime-related objects, including gunshot residues, paint chips, and clothing fibers.
  3. Biological Evidence: Foldscopes can be used to examine biological samples like bloodstains, saliva, or other body fluids. While they may not have the same magnification levels as expensive microscopes, they can still provide valuable preliminary information.
  4. Educational Purposes: Foldscopes can be useful instruments in forensic education or training purposes for teaching students the fundamentals of microscopy and analysis of the evidence. They can be used to explain forensic science principles cost-effectively.
  5. Remote Investigations: Foldscopes can be given to forensic groups working in distant or resource-limited locations. They allow these groups to conduct preliminary exams and collect preliminary data before shipping evidence to more advanced laboratories.
  6. Collaborative Projects: Foldscopes can help forensic scientists, law enforcement, and communities work together more effectively. They can be used in citizen science projects, allowing members of the public to help with forensic investigations or data collection.
  7. Environmental Forensics: Foldscopes can be used to examine environmental samples taken from crime scenes. They can be used to search for evidence of criminal activity in soil, plant materials, or other environmental remnants.
  8. Document Examination: While magnification is limited, Foldscopes can help with initial examinations of documents for handwriting, ink examination, or minor details that may be important in forensic document analysis.
  9. Training Law Enforcement Personnel: Foldscopes can be incorporated into law enforcement training programs to help law enforcement get familiar with fundamental microscopic examination techniques. This information can be important in the collection and preservation of evidence.
  10. Mass Disasters or Emergency Situations: Foldscopes can provide a rapid means of evaluating evidence or identifying substances in scenarios involving mass disasters or emergencies where immediate on-site examination is required.
  11. Outreach Programs: Foldscopes can be used in outreach activities for schools or community groups by forensic laboratories or law enforcement authorities. They can hold interactive sessions to demonstrate basic forensic techniques and encourage participant’s interest in forensic science.

Fig3: Root Sheath of human hair

Fig4: Continuous medulla of human hair

Fig5: Cow hair

Fig6: Buffalo hair

Challenges

While Foldscopes offer affordability and portability, they also present challenges in forensic applications.

  • Limited Magnification: Foldscopes typically offer lower magnification compared to traditional microscopes, which may restrict detailed analysis of certain forensic samples.
  • Sample Preparation: The process of preparing samples for observation in a Foldscope might be challenging for certain forensic materials, especially those requiring complex or specific preparation techniques.
  • Resolution and Image Quality: The image resolution and quality in Foldscopes might not meet the standards required for detailed forensic analysis or comparison of fine details in fingerprints or other evidence.
  • Durability: Foldscopes, being made of paper or lightweight materials, might lack durability in rigorous forensic fieldwork or during evidence collection and analysis.
  • Compatibility with Forensic Protocols: Foldscopes may not meet the regulatory or quality assurance standards required in forensic investigations, potentially limiting their use in official forensic processes.

Conclusion

Although Foldscopes are not as powerful or as sharp as traditional laboratory microscopes, they are nonetheless a great starting point for preliminary investigations and can be especially helpful as teaching aids or in resource-constrained settings. The assimilation of Foldscopes into forensic science methodologies has the potential to enhance the competencies of forensic investigators, promote community involvement, and ease initial investigations in diverse forensic scenarios.

In crime analysis, a foldscope could play a significant role by performing on-the-spot observations and examinations of evidence such as blood samples, hair, fiber, pollen grain, human sperm, diatoms, gunshot residues, soil, any plant materials, fingerprints, dust, and other traces while visiting crime scenes with preliminary conclusions, which saves time in the laboratory compared to using conventional microscopes. Currently, there is no report of using foldscopes in forensic science. However, it might help forensic laboratories by reducing their burden.

While Foldscopes offer accessibility, they may not always meet the stringent requirements and precision needed for detailed forensic analysis, making them more suitable for educational or preliminary observations rather than conclusive forensic examinations.

Foldscope, on the other hand, has the potential to become an important device in forensic kits in the future. It can also reduce the workload of forensic laboratories, which are common in any country. In terms of forensic science, the foldscope tool can investigate almost any kind of micro-trace evidence, allowing a variety of crimes to be solved.

References:

  1. Yadav, J. (2019). Analysis of forensic evidences by using the foldscope technique. Journal of Emerging Technologies and Innovative Research (JETIR) www.jetir.org. [online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/38666180/Analysis_of_forensic_evidences_by_using_the_foldscope_technique
  • Cybulski, J.S., Clements, J. and Prakash, M. (2014). Foldscope: Origami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE, [online] 9(6), p.e98781. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0098781

Written by: Kanchan Dogra

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