Soil scientists at Abertay University in UK are using 3D printing technology to find out, for the very first time, exactly what is going on in the world beneath our feet. They have used 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to recreate intricate intricate structure of soil, which it is hoped will reveal how fungi and bacteria move through the ground, survive, find food sources and interact.
The research team, led by Professor Wilfred Otten, have been able to create 3D images of the intricate structure of soil using CT scanning. And 3D printing technology has enabled the scientists to turn the 3D images on the computer screen into real-life, hand-held, 3D objects.
These incredibly detailed plastic cubes that are printed out are replicas of soil structure - a network of pores sort of like the holes in an Emmental cheese. The material used to create the cubes is called Nylon 12. And now the team is setting out to discover how these holes determine the ways in which the fungi and bacteria living within them interact.
By inserting microorganisms (such as fungi and bacteria) into the pore spaces within the plastic soil, the scientists can now observe exactly what is going on in the soil underground, how these microorganisms move through it, survive and interact.
This is the first time that 3D printing has been used to print something so intricate and detailed as soil before, says a university spokesman.
Professor Wilfred Otten explains, "In the past, before X Ray CT scanning became available, soil samples were taken back to the lab and studied there. But that's like studying the rubble of a collapsed building – you would never be able to tell what the structure of the building had been before it fell down, how many rooms it had, or how many people lived in or used it, and all the different things the different people used it for.
"These days we all know about the ways that species interact with each other and their environments above ground, and how sensitive they are to changes in their habitats. What we often forget, however, is that everything above ground relies on the soil it stands on – it plays a major role in food security and the carbon cycle, for example – but we still know very little about what goes on down there.
"What we have become aware of over recent years is that there are millions of organisms living in just 1g of soil. We know that they move around a lot within that environment, and that they interact with each other, but it has always been difficult to study these interactions in the natural environment.
"So 3D printing is a major breakthrough for us, because we now have the ability to examine the structure of soil up close, to see how big the pore spaces within it are, how they are linked together, and how the bacteria move through them as we watch their progress in the lab."
Dr Ruth Falconer, another member of the research team, said: "In our experiments, we think of the 3D prints as microcosms and use them to test theoretical models that predict how microbe. like fungi and bacteria, live and survive in 3D structures such as soil.
"We can analyse one species to begin with – providing it with simple food sources – and gradually add more complexity, so that we can eventually get close to replicating the environment they would naturally live in below ground.
"However, it isn't just the 3D printing which makes all this possible. The CT scanning is how we obtain all the data which shows us what the pore structure looks like so, without it, these live experiments wouldn't be possible."
The team hopes that eventually they will be able to help them looking at the bigger picture of the implications that soil has for food security, as well as soil's role in climate change.
Posted in 3D Printing Applications
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