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A Modest Proposal: 3-D Printing of Fossils Still Trapped in Matrix

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In the series “A Modest Proposal,” my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

Laser scanning of fossils to create 3-D models of them is becoming increasingly common. These models are key to computer simulations exploring how dinosaurs might have moved, and serve as the blueprints for replicas created using 3-D printers. Such 3-D printed fossils open up the possibility of 3-D printed dinosaur robots, a massive geek conjunction of lasers, dinosaurs and robots all in one package. More prosaically, the ability to hold a fossil in your hands can help paleontologists better imagine how bones of unknown species might fit together into skeletons.

An intriguing broadening of the possibilities of 3-D printing of fossils was raised by Matt Fedorko in a comment posted in a BoingBoing piece on a recent LiveScience article of mine about fossils of a bizarre new dinosaur with vampire-like fangs, a parrot beak and porcupine bristles. (Whew. That was a long sentence.)

My article talked about how these fossils remained trapped in blocks of rock in Harvard archives a half-century after they were first discovered. This is often the case in paleontology — scientists have excavated vast amounts of fossils still entombed within their original rocky matrix. It can paleontological technicians known as preparators months to years to properly remove all that matrix from bones, so it might take centuries to prep all the fossils currently stored in the lockers of some museums.

Instead of removing fossils from their matrices and then laser scanning them, why not try creating 3-D scans of them while they are still trapped within the rock? Imagine 3-D models of all these vast libraries of fossils placed online where students in schools all around the world might take a look at them either on their computers or as 3-D replicas.

Now, I’m not an imaging scientist, but I can already imagine how naive I sound to a professional. Figuring out what is fossil and what is not using, say, NMR or a CT scan is probably monumentally difficult, especially since you have one set of minerals, the fossilized material, surrounded by many other potentially very similar minerals. Even if 3-D scanners could distinguish fossils from their surroundings, it remains to be seen whether they could achieve high enough resolutions to be useful — microfossils and microscopic details on larger fossils are often key to understanding extinct life.

Still, the idea of creating dinosaur robots just by scanning blocks of rock is an enticing one…

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 11:57 pm 10/3/2012

    I looked at doing that in 1993 when I was just starting my educational toy company. The idea was to rent hospital equipment on off hours, late at night and early in the morning when hospitals don’t tend to schedule patient tests. The difficult I had was working with museums to get the specimens and the rights. It certainly would not replace an actual excavation but it might aid one by providing more details about what may be in the matrix giving staff the ability to prioritize projects. There is a tremendous wealth of specimens sitting on museums shelves waiting to be tapped. If the museums would be more flexible with the rights they grant they would be able to generate more funds to perform actual excavations by leasing the rights to create and sell copies to external companies.

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  2. 2. Lizardman2000 11:31 am 10/4/2012

    The application of 3d printing to fossils still encased in matrix and imaged by CT scanning has been done for years. CT scanning is rapidly becoming a common tool for paleontologists studying the internal structures of fossils, and in some cases the scans are used to create physical models for both study and display. Of course there are trade offs to consider. The cost of CT scanning and the data processing required to derive a suitable 3d model for printing may exceed the cost of traditional mechanical or chemical preparation in many cases. The type of matrix the fossil is encased and the size of the specimen are also major considerations. To derive a good 3d model, there needs to be reasonable contrast between the rock and the fossil, and this is not always the case. Also, one typically trades off resolution as specimen size increases both due to the size of the machine that can accommodate the fossil and the practical computing (and memory)limitations encountered when processing the huge data sets. In the case of very large fossils, there are only a few CT scanners that can be used, and these are generally designed for use by the aerospace industry for scanning aircraft components. For relatively small fossils, the task is pretty straight forward and yields good results. A colleague and I developed an exhibit display about 2 years ago using CT scanning and 3d printing of a partial skull and dentition of a 260 million year old fossil fish found at Guadalupe National Park in Texas. Some of the teeth were showing, but most of the fossil that was still encased in rock. It is currently on display at the visitor center at the park. We performed the scanning at the High Resolution CT Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, and we used a commercial provider for the 3d printing; however, the the UT lab offers a number of services including CT scanning, data processing, and 3d printing. See their website at
    also see )

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  3. 3. jkuszewski 12:03 pm 10/5/2012

    You can forget about using NMR imaging. Since the fossil and surrounding matrix are solids, their spectral lines are extremely broadened. There’d be no practical way to run imaging on a rock. And as Lizardman pointed out above, an x-ray based CT needs some density difference between the fossil and matrix to have much hope of working.

    That said, I’m surprised that RSchmidt had trouble getting the rights to the data. If these data were generated by a government grant (say, from the USGS, or National Science Foundation), then the authors most certainly do not have the right to keep the data to themselves!

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