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The scarcity of resources means that developing alternative products is a must – not just for the sake of the company, but also for our planet and thus for future generations. Employees at the Rail Signaling department in Braunschweig, Germany, and in Switzerland have managed to significantly reduce the use of hazardous or rare materials by developing balises with transponder technology.
At the production facility for rail signaling technology in Braunschweig, the team has made great strides in terms of resource management in the development and production of high-tech railway balises. These maintenance-free signaling beacons, which are also very light, are mounted to the track and provide even more information than the previously used magnets – driving forward the digitalization of rail transport.
This topic is also the subject of research in the Swiss city of Wallisellen. Colleagues there have developed a particularly energy-saving balise capable of operating without an external power supply.
Previously thousands of track magnets were installed across train lines in Germany alone. They provide trains with important information regarding stop signals or speed limits and initiate a response where necessary. They perform a very important function, but come at a high use in terms of raw materials, such as cobalt. The metal is not only scarce, but is also difficult to extract and toxic. Hilmar Würl, Head of the program for reducing the use of critical materials at EHS (Environmental Protection, Health Management and Safety), is clear on the issue: "Naturally, companies like Siemens cannot go without using high-tech materials such as rare earths or cobalt. However, each saving when it comes to these primary materials can go a long way in terms of resource conservation. For example, possible approaches include recycling, using new production techniques or technological changes."
The manufacture of balises in place of the use of magnets is an example of just such a technological change, as precious resources are saved. Compared to the track magnets, which can weigh in at anything up to 23 kilograms, the balises are mere featherweights at 3.6 kg. The manufacture of 220,000 balises has meant that the use of over 2,500 metric tons of magnetic materials was able to be avoided. That is roughly equivalent to 600 metric tons of cobalt.
Siemens has been able to save hundreds of metric tons of a critical material. In addition to cobalt, we can also save other raw materials from the track magnets such as nickel, aluminum, copper and iron.
Taking a look at the overall raw materials situation today, the contribution of employees at Siemens Mobility becomes even clearer – the world's population is growing fast, and with it the demand for energy and raw materials. From 1990 to 2040 – within the space of just 50 years – global demand for resources is estimated to quadruple. Companies like Siemens are called upon to steer this demand into sustainable channels, as every gram of material saved is a reduction in the strain on global resource storages.
The mining of resources always has an impact on the environment.
The global environmental program for product-related environmental protection at Siemens, "Product Eco Excellence", aims to reduce or even completely replace eight critical materials used in Siemens products. Cobalt is one of these.
This not only makes a sustainable contribution to environmental protection, but also increases Siemens competitiveness through the use of future-oriented technologies.