Wyoming museum uses 3D technology to create fossil, dinosaur replicas

May 11, 2012

We tend to think about scanning and printing as something that you do with pieces of paper – two dimensional objects. But now, a geological museum in Wyoming is scanning and printing things in 3D. They’re using 3D scanners and printers to make plastic replicas of dinosaur bones and other fossils, which can help with research and make collections accessible to scientists and museum goers around the world. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden went to Casper and filed this report.

WILLOW BELDEN: Attached to Casper’s Tate Geological Museum are a series of dusty back rooms. Triceratops bones are laid out on a high table. Smaller specimens line the shelves. Researchers chisel away at fossils they’ve unearthed, trying to learn about the history of the specimens and get them ready to put on display.

Today, there’s an additional project going on here: 3D scanning of a small fossil. JP Cavigelli is the Tate’s field operations specialist. He brings out the specimen they’re working on today. It’s about a foot long, and consists of a long backbone and an angular skull. The creature is a Triassic Nothosaur.

JP CAVIGELLI: Which is not a dinosaur; it’s a marine reptile related to plesiosaurs, which in common, everyday language is Loch Ness Monster. What we’re looking at here is that’s the skull right there. It’s a little crushed, but you can see the line of teeth here. These are actually his eye holes. And a string of vertebrae coming through here.

BELDEN: Cavigelli sets the fossil on a table, and Steven Cowley, who’s doing the 3-D scanning, starts setting up his equipment. It’s pretty simple, really. He’s got a laptop, with special software, a digital camera, a projector and a white board with a series of black dots and circles. He sets the fossil in front of the white board and positions his camera and projector just so.

STEVEN COWLEY: It works off of the same principals as stereoscopic vision. So, one eye is the camera; one eye is the projector.

BELDEN: By focusing both on the same spot, you can create a 3D image of something. Cowley turns on the projector, and a beam of light falls across the fossil. Then he goes to work on his computer.

CAVIGELLI: So now it’s kind of calibrating itself?

COWLEY: Yep. We’re determining where our left eye is. … And now we’re good.

BELDEN: When Cowley is done scanning the fossil, he’ll have a 3D digital image of the specimen on his computer. Then, the museum can use a 3D printer to create a plastic a plastic replica of the fossil. That’s useful, because this is the only Triassic Nothosaur skeleton in North America … so when they send the real thing back to the geological museum in Laramie, they can put the copy on display in Casper.

Creating replicas of fossils isn’t new. But traditionally, it’s been done by making silicon casts. And that can be dangerous with delicate specimens. The Nothosaur, for example, has teeth that are only half a centimeter long, and the gaps in between are tiny.

CAVIGELLI: And if you start filling those little gaps with silicon, as soon as you pull all the silicon off, you would break the teeth off.

BELDEN: Cavigelli says silicon can also discolor some specimens. So it’s safer to make replicas with a 3D scanner. Plus, it has the potential to make life easier for researchers.

CAVIGELLI: So that if Dr. So-and-so in Tokyo wants to look at a specimen from Wyoming, he’s like, tuk-tuk-tuk, get on the computer, send him a 3D scan. He can look at it and rotate it on the screen and print it if he wanted to. It’s a lot easier and maybe cheaper than sending a specimen to Japan.

BELDEN: Wyoming’s museums aren’t alone in their efforts to start making digital replicas. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC is embarking on a project to scan part of its massive collection of fossils and sculptures. And other institutions are following suit as well. Nick Pyenson is a paleontologist at the Smithsonian. His team did 3D scans of whale fossils in South America, and he says for giant specimens like whales and dinosaurs, being able to create smaller – but still accurate – replicas is an excellent research tool.

NICK PYENSON: You can actually handle and manipulate something that would have been impossible to do otherwise. … All of a sudden you’re able to perceive the entire skeleton in one glimpse. And then you can compare it to other skeletons. That kind of comparison is really the gold standard.

BELDEN: 3D scanning is also helping scientists piece together history. When they discover a new specimen, they can scan the material around that specimen. That allows them to analyze things like the angle at which plants were deposited in the area. The Tate Museum in Casper is doing that kind of scanning with the T-Rex they recently unearthed in Wyoming, and it’s helped them determine that the dinosaur probably died in a flood.

Aside from the specific things researchers can learn from 3D scans, there’s general agreement that the technology has a democratizing effect on science. Again, Nick Pyenson at the Smithsonian.

PYENSON: Data become freely available online. A lot more people can learn about natural history that may not be in their backyard. … So I think that opens the door research-wise to a lot more people contributing. So I really think that this type of digital technology is really going to be a boon to everybody.

BELDEN: Of course, all this emphasis on duplication doesn’t mean original fossils aren’t important too. Still, most agree that scanning, sharing and replicating collections is going to be the future for natural history museums. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.