You may think that they’ve been around forever and you wouldn’t be wrong. Railway sleepers, the rectangular blocks that can be seen under railroad tracks, have not evolved much over the years. An Italian SME is looking to shake things up with a tailor-made, sustainable sleeper technology.
Giovanni De Lisi, CEO & Founder – Greenrail Group in an interview says, “traditionally, railway sleepers have been made of wood or, later, concrete. But whilst these both proved their worth, they are not without shortcomings. Not only are they a major source of noise and vibrations, but they also require expensive maintenance. Ballast pulverisation, lateral displacement and lifespan are other major problems that Greenrail (Greenrail, innovative and sustainable railway sleepers: the greener solution for railway sector) set out to overcome”.
Giovanni Maria De Lisi studied to be a lawyer but became a Railway Entrepreneur instead. His Milan-based start-up GreenRail has one breakthrough idea – eco-friendly railway sleepers. These are made from ELT or end-of-life tyres and plastic from urban waste.
The Greenrail solution, which has been patented in over 55 countries, innovates with an inner core made of pre-stressed concrete and an outer layer made from a mix of recycled plastic and rubber from End-of-life tyres (ELT). The solution, which integrates various sensors and can produce electricity or collect solar energy, is already attracting customers across the world.
Greenrail was founded in 2012 by Giovanni Maria De Lisi — today the company’s 32-year-old CEO. He studied law after school but quickly moved onto industry. He started working for a railway maintenance company becoming its project manager few years later gaining technical experience especially on the problems of using concrete for railway sleepers.
Using this knowledge, Di Lisi invented Greenrail: an innovative and eco-sustainable railway sleeper, consisting of an inner core in pre-stressed concrete, and an outer shell obtained from rubber collected from end-of-life tyres (ELTs) and recycled plastic. Such unique composition of the sleeper allows not only to reuse 35 tons of these urban waste materials per each kilometer of railway, but also to ensure many technical improvements and integrate smart solutions for energy harvesting and data transfer in the sleeper’s structure.
After its foundation, the company started successfully participating in various startup competitions and fundings, winning few important awards, such as Edison Pulse. In 2015, Greenrail won funds from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Phase 1 for research and development activities for Greenrail sleepers. In 2016, Greenrail also won Phase 2 of the same programme. At present Greenrail is internationally recognized as a best practices example in sustainable railway transport and is entering the phase of commercialization of its sleepers. The technology is patented in 80 countries in the world, and has been recently exhibited at EXPO 2017 in Astana, dedicated to the Future Energy solutions.
De Lisi says that his biggest challenge has been that ‘at the beginning, no one believed in my idea. One time, two ‘gurus’ of chemistry in Italy told me it was impossible to obtain the mix of rubber and plastic I wanted. But I was stubborn, kept moving forward, covered the costs of necessary tests with my own funds and I turned out to be right. Entering the railway market should also be considered a challenge. It can be described as ‘closed’. It lacks innovation and sustainability, and these are Greenrail’s strengths’.
As early as 2013, Greenrail got a serious interest from a buyer in Brazil which, De Lisi says validated the idea in his mind. ‘We were not ready to meet this demand, it was way too early. However, it only made me sure that we must move forward, and we need to proceed even faster. It was definitely a big, positive impulse,’ he says.
De Lisi believes that Greenrail has potential to be the new standard solution in the railway sector. The technology is tailor-made, which means our sleepers can be designed and produced according to various international specifications and each client’s special requirements.
Read the full text of the Interview here:
RailNews: Why do you feel like there is a need for new railway sleepers?
Giovanni de Lisi: Since 1900, we have observed a lack of innovation in the railway infrastructure sector. The concrete sleepers have been the standard for 100 years but they present several technical disadvantages, such as high noise and vibration levels deriving from the railway traffic, elevated maintenance costs, high ballast pulverisation and major exposure to atmospheric agents. There is a need for a change, a sustainable innovation, in order to follow the circular economy principles. This is exactly what Greenrail does: we offer a new product with better technical, environmental and economic performance, with the potential to become the future standard solution.
RailNews: How does your technology compare to alternatives in terms of sustainability and cost?
Giovanni de Lisi: The Greenrail sleeper has a unique composition which allows for reusing plastic and rubber waste, making an enormous contribution to resolving the waste management issue. It also brings technical improvements, such as better electrical insulation, the reduction of vibration, noise and ballast pulverisation, and a longer lifespan. All of these technical advantages allow for reducing the maintenance costs by around 2 to 2.5 times compared to concrete sleepers.
RailNews: What kind of sensors can your sleepers integrate and to what end?
Giovanni de Lisi: Greenrail sleepers can integrate into their structure elements such as piezo electric modules, solar panels and smart sensors to harvest energy and to communicate diagnostic data. The Greenrail Piezo is able to produce electricity, while Greenrail Solar is able to produce and to harvest solar energy. Furthermore, thanks to the integration of smart sensors, Greenrail LinkBox is able to communicate diagnostic data in order to improve the safety of the infrastructure. All of these smart Greenrail sleepers enable a move from a passive to an active infrastructure.
RailNews: Can you tell us more about your railway sleeper and how it works?
Giovanni de Lisi: Greenrail sleepers consist of an inner core in pre-stressed, reinforced concrete, and an outer shell obtained from a mix of rubber collected from end-of-life tyres and recycled plastics. Such a unique composition allows us to reuse up to 35 tons of these materials for each kilometre of railway line.
RailNews: Looking back at the initial project objectives, would you say that the project was a success? How so?
Giovanni de Lisi: The Greenrail project is on the right track. Since its beginning in October 2016, we have achieved many objectives and milestones initially foreseen in the project. We have produced the first stock of Greenrail basic sleepers and have also constructed a pilot test stretch. Greenrail has obtained Italian certification, and we are involved in R&D activities for smart Greenrail sleepers. Furthermore, the company has finalised its first commercial contract with an American company for a value of EUR 75 million. Last month we also signed an important partnership with INDRA.
RailNews: What are your next plans with regards to commercialisation?
Giovanni de Lisi: After the contract with the USA-based company, requests and inquiries started pouring in from all over the world. Currently, we have open negotiations with numerous entities worldwide, in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Our product is tailor-made, which means it can be designed and produced according to various technical specifications. Hence, our technology is adaptable to every kind of railway, in every part of the world, making our market global.
RailNews: Do you intend to apply for phase 3 funding? To what end?
Giovanni de Lisi: We are evaluating the opportunity presented by SME Instrument phase 3 funding. But right now we are still focusing on the current project and commercial activities.