By Giovanni De Lisi – CEO & Co-Founder of Greenrail
Giovanni De Lisi tells his experience in the field of railway infrastructures mentioning the startup Greenrail, that is responsible for creating eco-friendly sleepers made of plastic deriving from urban waste and rubber deriving from the recycling of end-of-life tires. The market where the company operates, was dominated by wood and concrete, with products that had been engineered in the early 1900s. In the world there are one million 700 thousand kilometers of railway lines currently in existence, of which 10% made of wood and the remaining 90% made of concrete.
When he decided to start his start-up, De Lisi knew the reference market very well, having a family that deals with the assembly and installation of railway lines and in which he has worked directly for about 5 years. During this experience, he realized that the plastic sleepers, which were being developed at that time, could only be a substitute for 10% of the wooden infrastructures, and so the field of action was extremely limited. The idea was therefore to develop a product that could cover the remaining 90% of production with an environmental friendly material.
The reference market for sleepers is a very large market. Just think that only the sleepers replaced for normal maintenance activities are 140 million per year.
Beside the dimensions, De Lisi realized that the current dominant product, namely the concrete sleepers, had many limitations and, for this reason, he convinced himself to launch an alternative product that had better technical characteristics.
As a startup, Greenrail had to undertake an uphill path: the sleepers mixture was realized in collaboration with the Polytechnic of Milan after 35 attempts. Initially, the mixture of thermoplastic material, obtained from about 50% from end-of-life tires and 50% from recycled plastic with an internal structure of pre-stressed reinforced concrete, was considered impossible to be injection molded, the only chance for the company back then.
To date, they have installed the first sleepers with Emilia-Romagna Railways, and the patent is definitive in 80 countries worldwide. The advantages of the product developed by Greenrail are quite evident such as the reduction of up to 50% of the costs of the railway lines, 40% of the vibrations and 20% of the noise of the railway traffic. All these values are important to participate in the calls for tenders that require low values of “value engineering”, ie the cost of the product life cycle. In addition, the sleepers have obtained life cycle assessment certification from the Politecnico di Milano because at their end of life, after 45/50 years, they can be put back into the production process. After the startup foundation in 2012, the idea patent in 2013, and the international patent filing between 2013 and 2014, Greenrail has participated in several startup competition. The company was a finalist of the Gaetano Marzotto prize in 2013 and managed to win Edison’s tender for € 100 thousand in 2014, thanks to which it began the real research for the realization of the product.
In the last period, both customers and competitors, start to want licenses or the Greenrail product: this is because, in addition to offering the product, they bring to the territory a virtuous process capable of making the recycling of plastic and end-of-life tires is in motion. Just think that in India they are beginning to include in the supply technical specifications in the call for tenders, that the sleepers are made with plastic and recycled rubber.
By 2019, the research and development phase for the railway sleepers was completed, but this is not enough to stop Greenrail’s innovative development. In fact, the start-up is always projected to the future, trying to imagine how railway infrastructures will look like in 40/50 years. We can therefore talk about the shift from passive infrastructures to active infrastructures, capable of storing and transferring data, and of becoming “intelligent”.
An idea was also to integrate photovoltaic panels into the crossbars, based on the simple observation that 95% of their time they are in the sun and it was a shame to lose such an evident energy potential. So the product was seen as a container capable of enclosing systems of any type. In addition, Greenrail focused on the insertion of systems for detecting data relating to the diagnostics and maintenance of rail vehicles and on this project has created an important research partnership with Indra.
In recent months Greenrail has been expanding and making it known internationally, with customers and potential competitors, offering an innovative and completely eco-sustainable product, an example of a recycling process for plastic and end-of-life tires.