It's a decidedly 21st-century technology, but now 3D printing is being harnessed to highlight mesmerizing relics from the ancient past. A new web database out of the UK is offering users anywhere in the world the opportunity to explore thousands of three-dimensional fossil models online — and even print some of them for hands-on study.

Unveiled earlier this week, the database is being billed as the world's first 3D fossil repository. It's a collaborative effort between several UK museums, and was spearheaded by curators and paleontologists at the British Geological Survey (BGS). The project's primary goal, according to BGS chief curator Dr. Michael Howe, is to share more fossils with the public than a museum showroom can allow. "A typical museum will have thousands of specimens, but most of them are tucked away in drawers," he said. "That might make for a more appealing exhibit to the public, but it also means that very few people are ever able to see these incredible fossils."

The BGS, for instance, currently boasts a collection of 3 million fossils and another 1 million rock samples. After spending an entire year digitizing a selection of those specimens, using little more than an SLR camera and a laser scanner, several thousand are now available to view online. Of those, several hundred have been converted into 3D models, which can be examined up-close and rotated inside an interactive window. Another 125 of the specimens can be downloaded for 3D printing. "In as little as four or five hours, you can create a really good replica," Howe said. "Here at the museum, we've actually been stunned by how easy it is."

Printable dinosaur bones included

Right now, the database is primarily home to ancient invertebrate specimens — such as plants, corals, and bivalves. That's primarily because smaller items are much easier to photograph and scan, but those limitations don't rule out the prospect of larger additions — printable dinosaur bones included — in the future. "A dinosaur of several meters high is going to be difficult to scan, and you'd need to scan individual bones one at a time," Howe said. "But I like to think that the sky's the limit." In all, the group hopes to wind up with 20,000 images and at least 10,000 printable specimens. And while the database is currently limited to UK samples, Howe and his colleagues would like to see it incorporate fossils from around the globe.

20,000 images and at least 10,000 printable specimens

For most of us, the appeal of a fossil database is primarily recreational. But for scientists, the web repository boasts more useful applications. It's been designed to include fossils that are known as "type specimens" — valuable samples that are deemed representative of an entire species. When a researcher is examining a new fossil discovery that they suspect might be of a certain species, they can refer back to this type specimen for confirmation. Prior to this database, that often meant borrowing a specimen or traveling to the museum where it was held. Once the database is more extensive, however, scientists will be able to conduct their evaluations using fossil replicas they printed themselves. "For the public, we think that this is a fantastic education resource," Howe said. "But for researchers, we really think it can change the way they conduct their work."

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