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Geologists Develop App to Print 3-D Terrain Models of Any Place on Earth
Iowa Ag Connection - 03/16/2017

Today's geology lesson is all about anticlines.

Students can read all they want about geological folds, axial planes, hinge lines, antiformal synclines and synformal anticlines. But it can still be a challenge to visualize just what geologists are talking about.

A better option is putting boots on the ground such as a trip to Iowa State University's Carl F. Vondra Geology Field Station near Shell, Wyoming. The field station is in the north-central part of the state, on the western flank of the Bighorn Mountains. Nearby is Sheep Mountain, a well-known and typical anticline.

The Bighorn River has cut a canyon through the mountain and students can hike along the river to get a good look at a natural cross section of the exposed geological fold.

But most students aren't able to make a trip to Sheep Mountain.

So Iowa State researchers have come up with a new option TouchTerrain.

The web application is open source and free for private use through Iowa State's GeoFabLab. It allows anybody with a 3-D printer to easily and quickly print terrain models of any place on the planet, including the ocean floor.

To demonstrate, Franek Hasiuk, an Iowa State assistant professor of geology and David Morehouse Faculty Fellow, placed four tiles of 3-D-printed plastic, each about 4 inches square, on the desk in front of him. Put them together, and there's a scale model of Sheep Mountain and its central ridge rising out of the Bighorn Basin.

That's a teaching tool that can help students see and touch an anticline potentially a more powerful experience than studying a flat map or computer screen.

"This could be a key element in improving how geoscience students connect with the surface structure of the Earth," said Chris Harding, an associate professor of geology and a member of Iowa State's program in human computer interaction.

But, said Hasiuk, to be really useful, there had to be a fast, easy and reliable way for people to make the terrain models.

It's challenging to make 3-D terrain models that consistently print well on any commercial 3-D printer.

It requires an understanding of geographic information systems, computational geometry, design and manufacturing software and 3-D printing technology.

The TouchTerrrain development team includes Harding, with expertise in geographic information systems; Hasiuk, with expertise in 3-D printing of geological samples; Alex Renner, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering with expertise in simulations for 3-D printing; and Levi Baber, a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences information technology manager with expertise in server technology.

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