Access to rare fossils is limited, potentially putting a go-slow on their study, while sharing them around increases the risk of damaging them. Researchers at Berlin's Charité Campus Mitte have combined data from computed tomography (CT) scans with 3D printing technology to make it possible to print any number of accurate 3D reproductions of fossilized bones, without any adverse effect on the originals.

As a protective measure, fossils are often stored in plaster casts, or jackets, which typically need to be removed if the fossil is to be studied. However, removal of the plaster and the sediment surrounding it can also result in loss of material or the destruction of the fossil. A research team led by Ahi Sema Issever, M.D., has found a way to gain access to a fossil's secrets, without having to remove it from its protective case.

The researchers took an unidentified fossil from the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, and subjected it to a CT scan with a 320-slice multi-detector system. Because of the differences in radiation absorption rates between the bone and the surrounding material, the team was able to produce a clear depiction of a fossilized vertebral body. The CT scan helped the researchers trace the origin of the fossil and also revealed its condition and integrity.

The team then used the CT dataset to produce a 3D model that was printed using selective laser sintering, an additive manufacturing process that uses a high-powered laser to fuse powdered material together.

Dr Issever says the technique makes it easy for researchers to share exact copies of fossils as digital models that can then be printed out using a 3D printer. She claims it is also less time-consuming than conventional fossil preparation and makes it possible for museums, schools and other institutions to share unique fossils, without letting the original out of their hands.

"Just like Gutenberg's printing press opened the world of books to the public," says Dr Issever, "digital datasets and 3-D prints of fossils may now be distributed more broadly, while protecting the original intact fossil."

The team's study is published online in the journal Radiology.

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