New microscope to help track climate change, pollution impact on plankton

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Electrical engineer Tom Zimmerman holds a long list of patents. His latest invention, developed in his lab at IBM's Almaden Research Center in south San Jose, could become a major tool to track environmental change.

It's a digital stereo microscope that will be tracking plankton...those tiny organisms living in rivers, ponds, lakes, and oceans.

RELATED: Bioluminescence lights tasmania beaches

Scientists have been worried that 40 percent of the world's plankton has died over the past 60 years, which they tie to climate change.

His immersible microscope will help his IBM colleague, physicist Simone Bianco, to create a baseline of plankton behavior. An artificial intelligence chip will look for changes that might come from an oil spill, fertilizer runoff, water temperature change or other threats.

"You need an amount of data that is unprecedented," said Dr. Bianco, "and Tom's microscope allows us to do just that."

Standard microscopes can't keep plankton in focus. This one has no lens, solving the focus problem. And its components are surprisingly cheap.

"Right now we're using a board called a Raspberry Pi," said Zimmerman. "The lowest cost one is $5. The image sensor is $8. So you can see for less than $20, you have a digital stereo microscope."

The next challenge will be trying to find a waterproof housing to house the autonomous microscope. It will also need a surface for which a solar panel can be attached.

RELATED: Questions, answers about toxic West Coast crabs

The plankton research is being done with a grant from the National Science Foundation, and scientists from a number of facilities, including San Francisco's Exploratorium and U.C. San Francisco, will have access to the data.
Plankton may be a low life form, but it is the source of two-thirds of Earth's oxygen. Its behavior and numbers could serve as an alarm of environmental danger.

"Our plankton is definitely going to be our canary in a coal mine," said Dr. Bianco.

IBM's Zimmerman is enthusiastic about sharing his interest in plankton and his new microscope with others, especially kids. He is doing two public appearances this weekend. More details can be found here:

Click here for more information on the research.

Click here for tickets to the event.

Click here for more stories, photos, and video on animals.
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.