German researchers have announced a fairly extraordinary 3D print development today, which may have far reaching consequences for how rare artefacts and historical material is studied and tested in the future.
Armed with a CT scanner and a 3D printer, the researchers from Charite Campus Mitte in Berlin have created a precise recreation of a dinosaur fossil that was buried beneath the City’s Museum fur Naturkunde after a World War 2 bombing raid.
The fossil itself was wrapped in protective plaster. This is a long-used technique to protect fragile artefacts from damage when being stored or transported, yet it meant that, for several decades, those charged with the task of sorting and identifying this and other wrapped material found in the rubble of the museum’s basement could not be sure what exactly it was.
After doing a CT scan of the item, researchers identified the vertebral body of a dinosaur. By comparing the X-ray to sketches taken from a site first excavated more than a century ago, they could link the fossil to a major dig that took place in Halberstadt, Germany between 1910 and 1927.
Then, with a 3D printer, they printed a brilliantly accurate reconstruction of the fossil via selective laser sintering. This could all be done without needing to open up the protective plaster, which is time consuming and risks damaging the fossil itself. Plus, now that they have the scan, the fossil can be re-printed over and over again.
The simplicity, efficiency, speed, safety and inexpensiveness of this process, in comparison with other faux-fossil production techniques, means accurate copies of artefacts and fossils may well become much more widespread.
Charite Campus Mitte radiologist Dr. Ahi Sema Issever makes an insightful comparison when he says:
Just like Guttenberg’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.
Could 3D printing usher in an age where a truly precise, accurate replica of even the rarest artefact can be produced and distributed to schools, universities and libraries across the globe, in the same way works of great literature are published today? It may not be such a farfetched concept.