3D printing helps create rock samples difficult to obtain

  • Nimish Sany
  • 11 August , 2016

Thanks to 3D printing, scientists and researchers can now study rocks from moon without ever having to go to moon; or have collected samples in hand for that matter. Using remote 3D scanning and 3D printing, scientists can now obtain samples of rocks that are too difficult or expensive to obtain.

Assistant Professor of geophysics at the Stanford’s University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Tiziana Vanorio says, “You could use 3D-printed digital rock models to help screen and select the most scientifically interesting samples to return to Earth for research. Our study provides a first step in that direction.” As of now, remote 3D scanning of rocks which are ofcourse, in remote locations, reveals the material and bulk properties but they give very less information on how they would react to experimental conditions and situations; how fluids flow on their surface, for example.

Dulcie head at the lab. Image: L.A. Cicero

 “The advent of modern 3D printing provides an unprecedented opportunity to link the micro- and macro-scales by combining the strengths of both digital and laboratory experiments,” says Vanorio. “3D printing allows us to digitally manipulate changes at the pore scale and then print the rock at the scale that is suitable for laboratory tests,” she added. While scientists have 3D printed rocks before, mostly to throw light on their visual properties, Dulcie head, a doctoral student in Vanorio’s lab explains the significance of their own feat:

“No one else has done what we did, which is digitally modify parts of a natural rock microstructure and then physically measure in a laboratory how those changes affect fluid flow in the rock,” says Head.

 “Geophysicists already digitally scan rocks, so I thought to myself ‘Why not print them, too?” asks Vanorio. Through experiments, Vanorio and Head demonstrated that it is possible to alter the digital design of the rock and then 3D print the digitally altered ones. Their experiment was the first one to link changes made to the structure of a rock with its material properties such as porosity.

“A fundamental problem for geophysicists who want to understand rock properties is that our samples are not naturally comparable,” remarks Head. “You can take two rock cores from right next to each other that have very similar bulk properties, but when you look at them under a microscope, their pore structures might be completely different. By manipulating something that we couldn’t manipulate before, 3D printing allows us to understand the role of those tiny differences in the pore structure,” she added.

The team hopes to experiment with other materials in the future.


Nimish Sany: I bleed my thoughts on paper. And if I cant find a paper, blogs serve the purpose just fine.

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