April 23, 2018

University of Oregon Science Libraries Back Up Fossils with 3D Printer

At the University of Oregon (UO), staff at the Science Library have only had  an in-house 3D printer for a few months, but have wasted no time putting the new equipment to use. At the beginning of January, the library printed a 3D model of a rare fossil in the UO paleontology department’s collection—the remains of a 5-million-year old saber-toothed salmon.

image courtesy of UO Science Library

image courtesy of UO Science Library

The fanged fish fossil—which was the first one of its kind ever discovered—is a prize specimen, said UO science librarian Dean Walton, but it was also too fragile for researchers to do much work on it. And putting it on display where laypeople could interact with it and get a hands-on look at the daunting dentition of the seven-foot-long ancestor of modern salmon was entirely out of the question. The specimen of Onchorynchus rastorus was just too rare and valuable to risk any harm coming to it.

That made it a great candidate for 3D printing, Walton told Library Journal. Edward Davis, the UO paleontologist who has worked with the fossil, already had a CAT scan of the fossil, meant to preserve its exact measurements without undue handling. Walton and the staff turned that CAT scan into a 3D model. After starting with a smaller scale versions that proved the printer—a  MakerBot Replicator II—could offer an adequately detailed reproduction, the library went to work printing the braincase and jaw of the prehistoric piscine in 3 pieces. “Once that’s done,” said Walton, “[paleontologists] can take the model, make a cast, and have a legitimate, accurate copy without ever having touched the real fossil.”

The cast isn’t perfect for research purposes. An analysis of radioactive isotopes present in the actual fossil, for example, demonstrated that these ancient salmon were born in fresh water, lived most of their lives in the sea, and then returned to the fresh water to spawn. While advanced chemical analysis won’t be possible with the reproductions, though, the models will be accurate enough to handle so they can be used for taking measurements. And since they’re easy to make, the reproductions will also be suitable for display, letting far more people get a glimpse of the ancient anatomy of the saber-toothed salmon.

While there are other 3D printers at work on campus in spaces like the design department, Walton said, the Replicator in the library is unique in that it lives in a common space where users from around the university can access it to print whatever they need for their work. In addition to the salmon fossil, the UO library printer has been put to work crafting a geological model to accompany a graduate student’s presentation at this year’s meeting of the American Geological Union.

In coming weeks, the library is also preparing to print models of fossilized hominid skulls. UO anthropologist Stephen Frost works regularly studying the skulls in Africa, but can’t bring samples back to UO. With the 3D printer at his disposal, that’s no longer such a dilemma for Frost. Instead, he told Library Journal that he can now capture photographs of the specimens from a variety of angles and process the photos through a piece of software that stitches them together into a complete 3D image that can be printed on the Replicator, resulting in a picture-perfect replica that never has to leave its place of origin.

The printer is free for staff and faculty to use, a decision Walton said would be revisited after the first year of operation, once the library has a better idea of the popularity of the printer and the materials cost associated with it. Walton and company are working to ensure projects are related to a class or research project. “We don’t want people just downloading something from [3D blueprint site] Thingiverse and print a trinket,” Walton said. “If there’s going to use the printer and use it for free, they’re going to have to learn to use it to create objects.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Chris Winnan says:

    Interesting article.
    I recently donated my 3D printer to my local library. If you would like to learn more about the effects of 3D Printing on libraries, I would like to recommend my book “Adventures in 3D Printing” which is available as a free PDF at the 3D printing repository Thingiverse.
    and also at Grabcad

  2. Karl G. Siewert says:

    Will the University make the model data available so that others can print their own copies?