Rocks from other planets could soon be at scientists’ fingertips, instead of sitting in a collaborator’s lab halfway around the world or on another planet.

What do you do if you want to study the structure of a rock that’s inconveniently located on another planet? In a digital age, why not just scan it and print a copy here on Earth? Stanford University geophysicist Tiziana Vanorio is developing technology that could do just that. Her 3-D rock printing technique allows her team to create models of rocks they can’t study directly, be it because they’re too distant to access or too fragile to handle. We spoke with her about the technology and its potential applications.

ResearchGate: How did you get the idea of 3-D printing rock models?

Tiziana Vanorio: I got the idea of 3-D printing rock models after purchasing a pair of ballerina shoes that were 3-D printed from a digital model. Geophysicists frequently digitally scan rocks, so I thought to myself, why not print them, too?

RG: What are some potential future applications?

Vanorio: By combining remote 3-D imaging and 3-D printing, scientists can create physical models of digitally scanned rocks that are either too fragile to handle or too remote to access. Simulants of lunar regolith are being developed by scientists as a printing material for robotic additive construction of structures on planets. As imaging tools in planetary missions advance and transmission of large data files moves forward, we could one day use 3-D-printed digital rock models to help screen and select the most scientifically interesting samples to return to Earth for research.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Tiziana Vanorio in the Stanford Rock Physics Laboratory. Credit: Rona Chan

RG: How does the printing technique work?

Vanorio: There are several 3-D printing technologies, and most of them build objects layer by layer from the very bottom up. The solid object is created by either heating and extruding thermoplastic filaments, by sintering the object selectively through a laser, or curing the print with different sources of light. We used the stereolithography method where 3-D printers create prints using a directed ultraviolet laser beam to harden liquid photo-reactive resin layer by layer.

RG: What material is the finished printed rock model made of? Is it possible to reproduce the mineral composition of a scanned rock?

Vanorio: Current printers work with resins of different hardness, glass, metal, and ceramic. However, more specific materials are being developed to synthesize material properties relevant to this application.

RG: Might this process ease collaboration between geographically distant labs?

Vanorio:  Absolutely. The digital files used for printing the rock models can be shared with other labs for the purpose of testing them and creating a benchmark data set.

RG: What research are you using this process for now?

Vanorio: Currently, we are using 3-D printing to understand the relationship between changes in the pore structure of rocks and large-scale properties like as porosity and permeability. 3-D printing allows us to digitally manipulate changes at the pore scale and then print the rock at a scale that is suitable for laboratory tests. By operating subsequent, controlled changes to the pore scale, we can directly study how properties of the pore network affect flow changes in the printed rock model.

This article was originally written for and published by ResearchGate.

Featured image: researchers may one day be able to scan rocks on Mars and print 3-D replicas in their labs. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech