Soil scientists at Abertay University are using 3D printing technology to find out, for the very first time, exactly what is going on in the world beneath our feet. In the same way that ecologists study the interactions of living organisms above ground, Professor Wilfred Otten and researchers at the university’s SIMBIOS Centre are taking advantage of the new technology to do the same below ground. 3D printed soil is literally helping reveal the world beneath our feet.
Using X-ray Computed Tomography (CT scanning), the team have already been able to create 3D images of the intricate structure of soil – a network of pores not unlike the holes in cheese. However, they now want to know how these holes, or “pore spaces”, determine the ways in which the fungi and bacteria living within them interact.
And 3D printing technology has enabled the scientists to start finding out, as they can now turn the 3D images on the computer screen into real-life, hand-held, 3D objects. The incredibly detailed plastic cubes that are printed are replicas of the structure of the soil, and are being used by the scientists as experimental systems in the lab.
By inserting microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria, into the pore spaces within the plastic soil, the scientists can now observe how these microorganisms move through it, survive, find food sources and interact.
Although 3D printing is becoming more common, and people can buy 3D printers to use at home, it has never been used to print something so intricate and detailed as soil before.
Bill Baugh is a product manager for Custom Biologicals, Inc. a manufacturer and distributor of innovative microbial products. You can visit their website at Living-Soils.com and he can be contacted at 561.797.3008 or Bill@Custombio.biz.