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A New Project Aims to Digitize and ‘Print’ Fossils in 3-D

by Dave on September 21, 2011

Rendering of the 3-D scan of the skull of Australopithecus sediba child.

Rendering of the 3-D scan of the skull of Australopithecus sediba child.

Jean-Jacques Hublin is an paleonthropologist. That means he studies the fossils of ancient humans and pre-humans. Hublin began a project (http://ow.ly/6xoQZ) that has several lofty goals. First, to digitize all existing fossils of our human ancestors and their ancestors using the latest in medical and virtual imaging. Second, to share these 3-D images with scientists around the world. If needed, they could even ‘print’ an exact 3-D copy of the fossil to examine.

Currently these fossils are scattered in museums and universities around the world. When a paleoanthropologist needs to see a specific fossil, he must physically travel to that fossil to examine it. To say this project would revolutionize the practice of paleoanthropology might be an understatement.

The technique Hublin is using to create these virtual images is called tomography (http://ow.ly/6xNGp). A computer-assisted X-ray builds up a 3-D image of an object, one slice at a time. The process takes many hours, but when complete, it is accurate to to a few thousandths of a millimeter. The process generates massive amounts of digital data.

Using the 3-D image created, scientists can view a 3-D image of the fossil in extreme detail on a computer in their own office. They can turn it, roll it, and even look inside it. If they need a physical copy of the fossil, they can load the virtual image into a 3-D printer, like the Spectrum Z510 3-D printer from Z Corporation.

Here’s another interesting story about fossils and tomography: http://ow.ly/6xOof

 

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