3D printing a fossil: too good to be true? No, say German researchers in a publication in the journal Radiology. They used a 3D printer and a CT scanner to copy dinosaur fossils and create accurate 3D prints of these ancient objects. The main advantage of their work would be that it’s “non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal”, according to Ahi Sema Issever, a radiologist at the Charite Campus Mitte in Berlin. “Also, it is not as time-consuming as conventional preparation.”
Image: the plastered fossil (left) next to the 3D print (right) without its plastered body.
The thing about fossils is that most of the time they are wrapped in plaster casts to protect them from being damaged. When researchers then want to study the fossils they have to remove the plaster, which means the fossils can become damaged and sometimes even destroyed. It’s definitely a pity for science when classic fossils become damaged, but with the usage of 3D printing this will soon be history, because researchers will become enabled to study 3D printed copies.
The team of Issever have tried their technique in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where they’ve been scanning unidentified fossils with a 320-slice multi-detector system. Because the plaster, sediment and fossilized bone absorbed X-rays in a different way, it became very clear to Issever and her team what the fossilized vertebral body would be looking like. The studied fossils were buried under rubble after a bombing raid during the second World War and since then staff members from the museum couldn’t identify some of the objects.
However, after the team studied the CT scan, they found out the fossils were originally found during the Halberstadt excavation, a dig in Halbertstadt, Germany that took place between 1910 and 1927. They used old excavation drawings in order to find out what the missing pieces were (see image above). The study also showed that there were multiple fractures and destruction of the front rim of the body. The team then sent the CT scan to a 3D printer, which created an accurate reconstruction of the fossil. The 3D printer used a so-called technique selective laser sintering for this. Such a technology uses high-powered laser to fuse together materials to make a 3D object.
Issever thinks 3D printing will open doors for a lot of research facilities. “The digital dataset and, ultimately, reproductions of the 3-D print may easily be shared, and other research facilities could thus gain valuable informational access to rare fossils, which otherwise would have been restricted,” she said. “Just like Gutenberg’s printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3-D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly while protecting the original intact fossil.”
Images by Radiology / RSNA.