Scientists recreate fossils by using CT scans, 3-D printers

Scientists have created precise copies of fossilised bones by using data from computed tomography (CT) scans and three-dimensional (3-D) printers.

Updated: Nov 20, 2013, 19:45 PM IST

Zee Media Bureau

Washington: Scientists have created precise copies of fossilised bones by using data from computed tomography (CT) scans and three-dimensional (3-D) printers.

Fossils are often stored in plaster casts, or jackets, to protect them from damage. Getting information about a fossil typically requires the removal of the plaster and all the sediment surrounding it, which can lead to loss of material or even destruction of the fossil itself.

German researchers have now proven the possibility of using CT to create a 3-D scan that separates the fossilised bone and its surrounding sediment matrix, before using a 3-D printer to produce an accurate model.

“The most important benefit of this method is that it is non-destructive, and the risk of harming the fossil is minimal,” said study author Ahi Sema Issever, from the Department of Radiology at Charite Campus Mitte in Berlin.

“Also, it is not as time-consuming as conventional preparation,” Issever said.

According to the new research published in the journal Radiology, Issever and colleagues applied the method to an unidentified fossil from the Museum fur Naturkunde, a major natural history museum in Berlin.

The fossil and others like it were buried under rubble in the basement of the museum after a Second World War bombing raid. Since then, museum staff members have had difficulty sorting and identifying some of the plaster jackets.

Researchers performed CT on the unidentified fossil with a 320-slice multi-detector system. The different attenuation or absorption of radiation, through the bone compared with the surrounding matrix enabled clear depiction of a fossilised vertebral body.

The researchers were able to trace the fossil’s origin to the Halberstadt excavation, a major dig from 1910 to 1927 in a clay pit south of Halberstadt, Germany, after studying the CT scan and comparing it to old excavation drawings.

The CT study also gave valuable information about the condition and integrity of the fossil, showing multiple fractures and destruction of the front rim of the vertebral body.

Besides, the CT dataset helped the researchers build an accurate reconstruction of the fossil with selective laser sintering, a technology that uses a high-powered laser to fuse together materials to make a 3-D object.

Issever noted that the findings come at a time when advances in technology and cheaper availability of 3-D printers are making them more common as a tool for research.

“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,” Issever said.

With PTI inputs