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The combination of remote 3D imaging and 3D printing could one day allow scientists to study faraway rocks, like Martian or lunar formations, by reconstructing them on Earth.

“You could use 3D printed digital rock models to help screen and select the most scientifically interesting samples to return to Earth for research,” Tiziana Vanorio, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford, said in a news release. “Our study provides a first step in that direction.”

The new technique for printing 3D rock samples — currently under development at Stanford — could also help scientists study rocks that are too delicate to handle.

Currently, scientists are using the technique to study how microscopic structural changes influence macro properties like permeability and porosity.

“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,” said Dulcie Head, a Stanford doctoral candidate and researcher in Vanorio’s lab.

Researchers recently detailed their 3D printing technique in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Scientists begin with a 3D image of a rock sample. The model’s pore structure is then digitally altered. Finally, a 3D printer brings the sample to life using layered light-sensitive resin hardened by ultraviolet light. An industrial 3D printer with a high resolution and wax-assisted technology allowed for more fine-tuned manipulation of the sample’s inner composition.

“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,” Head added.

Researchers hope to soon experiment with a mix of different materials to better replicate the composition of different types of rock samples.

“There are currently printers that work with glass, metal and ceramics,” Head said. “All of those are emergent technologies, but we are hopeful that we will be able to experiment with other materials in the future.”