Blast from the past: CT and 3D printers recreate dinosaur fossils

Data from CT scans can be combined with 3D printers to produce accurate copies of fossilized bones, according to research published online Nov. 20 in Radiology.

Generally, fossils are preserved in plaster casts, or jackets, to protect them from deterioration. In order to obtain information about a fossil, the plaster and sediment much be removed, often leading to damage or loss of material.

A group of German researchers studied the possibility of utilizing CT and 3D printers to safely separate fossilized bone from surrounding sediment and produce a 3D print of the bone.

Ahi Sema Issever, MD, of the Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin, and colleagues used the method on an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde, a well-known natural history museum in Germany. The fossil was buried under the museum’s basement after a World War II bombing raid. Identifying and sorting the plaster jackets has been a challenge for museum staff.

CT was performed on the mysterious fossil with a 320-slice multi-detector system. The radiation absorption through the bone contrasted with the surrounding sediment and revealed a clear image of a fossilized vertebral body. The CT not only helped the researchers trace the fossil’s origins, but gave important information about the fossil’s condition and integrity.

The researchers used the CT data to build an accurate fossil reconstruction with technology that fuses materials together with a high powered laser to make a 3D object. This technique is known as selective laser sintering.

“The digital dataset and, ultimately, reproductions of the 3D print may be easily shared, and other research facilities could thus gain valuable information access to rare fossils, which otherwise would have been restricted,” Issever said in a press release. “Just like Gutenberg’s printing press opened the world of books to the public, digital datasets and 3D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil.”