3D printed soil sample. Source: Abertay University
3D printed soil sample. Source: Abertay University

At the Abertay University in the UK, soil scientists have 3D printed a replica of soil samples to further study and understand what goes on underground. The scientists 3D scanned soil samples and then 3D printed the scans to create a replica of soil that they can hold in their hands. The material used to create the soil is called Nylon 12 and reveals holes and spaces in the sample that is similar to cheese. The scientists hope to discover how fungi and bacteria interact in relation to the holes.

“This is the first time that 3D printing has been used to print something so intricate and detailed as soil before,” said 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 microbes like fungi and bacteria, live and survive in 3D structures such as soil.

“We can analyze 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 the project will yield results regarding implications that the role of soil has for food security and climate change.