Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

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


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.

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

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