Ability To 3D Print Dinosaur Bones Will Help Paleontologists Investigate Fragile Fossils

By Ben Wolford on November 20, 2013 4:49 PM EST

Dinosaur Bones
3D printers are being used to print dinosaur bones, like this T-Rex skull. (Photo: Photo: Shutterstock)

Someday the public may not have to go to the museum to look at dinosaur bones behind glass displays. Scientists are already using 3D printers to make their own near-exact replicas. And researchers in Germany have now taken that ability a step further by incorporating computed tomography, or CT, scans to detect the shape of fragile fossils encased in plaster. They have published their success in the journal Radiology.

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"We wanted to see if we could do it," said Ahi Sema Issever, head of CT scanning at Charité Campus Mitte, in a report from DOTmed Daily News.

The uses of 3D printing are seemingly boundless. NASA is using 3D printers to replace parts and tools on the International Space Station. A company in California is gearing up to take the first road trip in a 3D-printed car. And a 3D-printed airway splint saved a baby's life in Youngstown, Ohio. Even the most beautiful violins in the world can be nearly perfectly recreated using 3D printing.

The technology works by uploading a computer-generated image of an object and then "printing" it: A machine deposits tiny layer upon tiny layer of plastic, until the object is fully formed. Dinosaur bones, too, have been 3D printed before. But until now, that has required actually having the bones exposed — not encased in plaster or concealed by rock and dirt.

Often, delicate dinosaur bones are coated and stored in a plaster casing to keep them safe. Obviously, examining it requires the tedious and hazardous task of removing the plaster. Combining CT scans and 3D printer technology changes that. Look at this. On the left is the original dinosaur bone inside its "plaster jacket." On the right is the carbon copy created by Issever and his team.

"Once we relied on meticulous time-consuming methods to prepare delicate fossils out of the rock and, even then, we could only see their external features," John Long, a paleontologist at Flinders University, told The Conversation. "Now, using high-resolution micro-CT scanners and synchrotrons [particle accelerators], we can investigate every nook and cranny of the fossil right down to individual cells and tissue structures without having to risk damaging the specimen."

The Conversation also reported that when the scientists CT scanned their test fossil, they discovered information about its condition they couldn't previously discern. But there are shortcomings of the technology. Researchers will have to be careful about mistakenly printing pieces of rock they thought were parts of the bone.

The Smithsonian Institution is getting out ahead of the technology (and its potential to shift the museum industry) by launching Smithsonian X 3D. It makes a portion of its artifacts available to the public for download and 3D printing.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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