Skip to main content

News & events

A closer look: CEE’s CT scanner largest on campus

By Brooke Fisher

While University of Utah researcher Randall Irmis watches, CEE ​lab manager Sean Yeung (right) prepares a marine crocodilian skull to be scanned.

Most people have never held a 150-million-year-old marine crocodilian skull. But if you operate UW CEE’s CT scanner, your odds improve.

“There’s always something interesting coming through,” said lab manager Sean Yeung, one of four operators of the largest CT scanner on UW’s campus. Housed in More Hall, the Computed Tomography Facility (CTF) opened for business in January 2016.

​CEE lab manager Sean Yeung prepares a marine crocodilian skull to be
scanned. The green foam stabilizes the skull inside the scanner. 

Discovered in Ethiopia, the 150-million-year-old skull may be a new species of marine crocodilian. It was scanned as part of a collaborative research project undertaken by Randall Irmis, associate professor of geology & geophysics at the University of Utah, UW Department of Biology associate professor Greg Wilson and Mark Goodwin, assistant director for the University of California Museum of Paleontology. The researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the space between the brain and the inner surface of the skull, called the endocast.

“The endocast has a lot of information about the animal and how it lived,” said Irmis, who also serves as the curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. “If we know the different sizes and shapes of portions of the brain, we can make comparisons to other animal endocasts to see how they vary.”

Since the inside of the skull is filled with rock, it requires a powerful scanner to penetrate the dense material, so that enough data can be collected to create a 3D model. Other scanners, such as those used in the medical field, are not powerful enough to scan through the layers of rock embedded in the skull.

“I came here because the scanner has excellent resolution and higher energy,” Irmis said. “And when we publish our research, we will be able to share the 3D models with other researchers and the public.”

Interesting applications

Taking X-ray images from different angles, the CT scanner produces 3D models that reveal what the inside of objects look like without cutting into them. The facility is utilized by engineers, biologists, anthropologists, earth scientists, paleontologists and more for a variety of applications. A few examples include: 

The reconstructed 3D model can be sliced to reveal the interior of an object.

  • Seattle start-up VICIS scanned their new NFL and college football helmet, designed to reduce injuries 
  • A local manufacturing start-up utilizes the scanner to evaluate their electronic assemblies
  • A vascular surgeon scanned patient stent implants for post-mortem analysis
  • Dentists are using the scanner to improve methods of tooth repair
  • Burke Museum curators scan various fossils
  • Biology researchers scanned mammal skulls in a bite-force study
  • A UW Materials Science & Engineering student is investigating fish scale punctures to improve body armor design
  • Geologists are researching mineral filled bubbles in ancient lava flows
  • Atmospheric sciences researchers are investigating gas bubbles in polar ice cores
  • A local violin maker scans violins to determine the repair history of instruments

Standing in front of the CT scanner, University of Utah researcher Randall Irmis holds a 150-million-year-old marine crocodilian skull. 

Industry users welcome

The CTF is available to other universities, government agencies, private companies and the general scientific community. Scans are performed by trained engineers. Learn more.

Originally published October 1, 2018