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Off-Topic: NDT Technology Unlocks the Secrets of Prehistoric Life

August 29, 2008
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For paleontologists of the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, NDT digital X-ray technology has played a major role in their ability to analyze, in noninvasive ways, a 77 million-year-old mummified dinosaur. Source: Carestream Health Inc.


For many, nondestructive testing (NDT) techniques have always been associated with applications involving safety inspection for quality driven industries such as aerospace, automotive, energy and oil, electronics, and manufacturing. Now, thanks to the Leonardo Dinosaur Project, that scope has been expanded into a new scientific era of digital NDT research.

For paleontologists of the Judith River Dinosaur Institute (JRDI, Malta, MT) NDT digital X-ray technology has played a major role in their ability to analyze, in noninvasive ways, a 77-million-year-old mummified dinosaur named Leonardo. With today’s computed radiography (CR) techniques scientists can look to a prehistoric world once thought long gone. For Leonardo, NDT technology was a critical solution to help solve the mysteries surrounding his prehistoric existence.

The 3-year-old male Brachylophosaurus Canadensis was discovered in the summer of 2000 in Malta, Montana. The discovery is extraordinary because Leonardo is by far the largest and best-preserved dinosaur fossil to be taken out of the earth. Leonardo’s body is actually mummified and fully intact. Scientists believe environmental conditions played a role in Leonardo’s preservation. During the fossilization process his skin was hermetically preserved and approximately 90% of his soft tissue including skin, muscle, nails and beak remain intact. Even his last meal remains in his stomach.

Using NDT Equipment in the Field

NDT field-testing of Leonardo was completed at JRDI by enlisting the help of Carestream Health (Rochester, NY). The team set up a digital mini-radiography lab in a remote field station. Using the Kodak Industrex ACR 2000i Digital System, they produced 40 radiographic images of Leonardo’s head, portions of his skeleton and abdomen.

“Scientists have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” says Joe Iacuzzo, Leonardo project manager. “The Kodak Industrex digital system was an integral part of this incredible discovery. If we didn’t have this type of technology we wouldn’t have been able to examine the confirmed organs inside of a dinosaur.”

The ACR 2000i penetrated the fossil rock and captured detailed X-ray images of Leonardo.

Steve Mango, Carestream Health’s worldwide technology manager of NDT solutions, is the lead technical expert on the project. “With NDT, we typically radiograph industrial materials and parts,” says Mango. “As far as subject matter, there aren’t a lot of similarities with Leonardo so we discovered a lot, especially with exposure techniques. We really got a chance to demonstrate just how versatile our system is. The radiographic images we produced look as good as what you would see on a human X-ray in the medical field.”

Part of that clarity can be attributed to the system’s specialized viewing software. Mango was able to fine-tune reader gain settings to optimize exposures and minimize the effects of scatter. By using the correct strengths and intensities of electromagnetic energy, a balance was created between image quality and penetration power.

The ACR 2000i, which relies on storage phosphor plate imaging, also was flexible enough to allow the team to shoot and rotate large imaging sections of the specimen. Now, the scientists are taking their examination to the next level and concentrating on X-raying Leonardo’s harder to reach, more fragile internal organ areas.

The discovery of Leonardo is extraordinary because he is by far the largest and best-preserved dinosaur fossil to be taken out of the earth. Leonardo’s body is actually mummified and fully intact. Source: Carestream Health Inc.

Creating a Solid 3-D Image

In order to capture and create a 3-D image of the fossil, the 1.5-ton Leonardo moved farther than he has ever moved in 77 million years. His journey took him approximately 1,800 miles to NASA’s Ellington Field Facility in Houston to undergo further NDT testing with the Kodak Industrex ACR 2000i.

At the NASA facility, the team of imaging scientists constructed a gantry system and platform to enable precise 3-D imaging that allowed better access to specimen areas that were not accessible in the field.

“The NASA facility is ideal because it’s roomy and we can maintain a proper safety exclusion zone, especially when using the powerful radiation intensity of the Iridium 192 and Cobalt-60 gamma isotope sources,” says Mango. “The facility also enables us to conduct the imaging in one area, with a separate area to scan the imaging plates and do the analysis.”

Leonardo’s remains underwent a customized dinosaur proportion scan process to imitate a CT scan, using the flexible imaging capabilities of the ACR 2000i. The resulting 3-D model will be the first of its kind that includes not just the skeleton, but also the actual organs and mummified skin.

“The 3-D model will be significant to our research. Leonardo is so complete there has never been anything quite like it before. Most of our findings at NASA also confirmed what we found in the field. If it wasn’t for the NDT digital technology, we wouldn’t have been able to be 100% certain about important elements that make up Leonardo. It’s very rare in science to be able to say a finding is absolutely positive without any speculation.”

The Digital Advantage

The shooting technique used at NASA was based on a shoot-and-rotate operation. Radiographers produced several 10 to 12 minute images by positioning the X-ray tube at sequential 5-degree angles that will later be combined and stitched together to create the 3-D model.

“We used a stereo radiography technique to gather about 55 X-ray images,” says Mango. “With the stereo technique we took two radiographic images at two specific angles allowing scientists to reconstruct a full stereo image of Leonardo. Our digital system has enough user controls and preference options so we were able to employ a wide range of exposure techniques.”

According to Mango, the Kodak Industrex digital system also allowed them to revitalize over-exposed images, and index images so scientists could clearly identify each specimen part.

“We would take a digital photo of the area we were shooting along with the X-ray image as a reference source with special annotations about the area,” adds Mango “The system allowed us to file all of the images together to keep everything properly documented. We were even able to salvage shots by re-reading plates that had too much exposure or saturation. With film, or perhaps another system, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

With all of the new advancements seen today within the industrial applications of NDT there is still something about this unique paleontology application that draws us further into the technology. Leonardo is inspiring not only to the scientific community, but also to the future inventors of tomorrow.

“Thanks to Carestream Health’s NDT technology, scientists will spend the next 100 years studying the paleoecology of the world in which Leonardo lived,” says Martin Graen, worldwide general manager, NDT Solutions Group, Carestream Health. “As they learn about the past, the Carestream NDT team will use our findings to improve the future. By trying new techniques and using this project as a learning tool, we can continue to develop the endless possibilities and applications of our technologies to improve our products and enhance the quality of all of our lives.”
    Carestream Health Inc.
    (585) 627-1800
    www.carestreamhealth.com

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