"Print your own dinosaur bones"
November 20th, 2013
Ever dream of holding a sauropod skull in your hand? New imaging and printing technology may soon give the public unprecedented access to millions of fragile, rare fossils.
3-D printing has already received plenty of press for making anything from guns to bionic ears to guitars. But it also has broad applications for paleontologists, geologists and other researchers who handle rare artifacts.
Recently, a team of German researchers were able to virtually "unearth" and print a replica of a fossil without having to remove its protective plaster covering thanks to CT/3-D printing technology.
The technique could potentially be used to study and replicate fossils that are too fragile to be handled, the team reported in this week's issue of the journal Radiology.
The fossil was originally part of a collection that was buried under rubble in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin during a World War II bombing raid.
Because they were encased in protective plaster and some of the labels were destroyed during the bombing, museum staff still have trouble identifying and sorting some of the artifacts.
The study came about when museum paleontologist Dr. Oliver Wings approached Dr. Ahi Sema Issever, head of CT scanning at Charité Campus Mitte, to scan the specimen. Since bone and plaster absorb radiation at different rates, the CT scan is able to distinguish between them, enabling researchers to recreate the fossilized body.
Armed with the scan, researchers were able to solve a longstanding mystery about the origins of the fossil: though the fossil was originally thought to be taken from from African excavations in the early 1900s, researchers found that the fossil actually matched up with a sketch of a bone excavated from a clay pit south of Halberstadt, Germany, sometime between 1910 and 1927.
The 3D printing was almost an afterthought. "We wanted to see if we could do it," said Issever. While 3-D printers have been used to recreate fossils before, this was the first time a fossil was recreated from a specimen still encased in sediment.
The data from the CT scan was entered into the printer, resulting in a fossil replica that would have been impossible to create without risk of damaging the fossil itself.
"We were able to dissect the bone from the sediment without even manually doing it," said Issever.
Rock and roll
The technology could also revolutionize research and teaching for geologists, according to Franek Hasiuk, a geologist at Iowa State University.
Hasiuk is the proprietor of the GeoFabLab, an online hub that provides instructions and tips on how to print your own 3-D models, along with a repository of scanned models that the public can download, print and use.
The inspiration came out of Hasiuk's former line of work in the oil and gas industry, where he often performed research on porosity, which includes testing the way toxic liquids such as mercury move through rocks.
"A lot of the tests we do are destructive -- the sample has to be thrown away or destroyed," he explained.
The advantage of 3-D printing is that researchers like Hasiuk will be able to scan any given porous rock and replicate it numerous times, meaning the exact same rock can be tested on, manipulated or destroyed as many times as researchers want -- a huge boon for scientific research, which relies on reproducible results and repetition.
Printing these rocks aren't without their challenges. "They're able to produce solid things, but with something porous, you're trying to print something that's not there, which is not what 3-D printers were traditionally designed to do," Hasiuk explained.
The technology, which is still relatively new, has opened up many new unexpected applications for scientists, and its full value has yet to be explored.
Flexible 3-D models of fossils, for example, can enable researchers to move the specimens as they may have moved when they were alive, helping them visualize and make connections in a way that's impossible to do by examining scans.
Hasiuk isn't the only one excited about the educational potential of this new technology: the Smithsonian Institution announced last week the launch of a new web portal that allows users to access scanned, printable 3-D models of objects from its massive collection, including the Wright brothers' first airplane and a woolly mammoth fossil from the Ice Age.