Each autumn, leaves fall to the ground by the billions. Slightly annoying if you have a backyard but really annoying if you run a railroad company. It turns out those leaves are a slippery menace on train tracks. That's why Dutch Railways is testing a high-energy solution: Train-mounted lasers.
In a recent article, New Scientist lays out the seriousness of the fallen leaf problem. Movement grinds the leaves into a "hard Teflon-like residue" that coats the tracks, reducing traction and messing with signaling systems. In 2013, reports New Scientist, leaves alone caused 4.5 million hours in passenger delays.
Dutch Railways has recently started testing a laser that sits right in front of the wheels on a train. The laser burns any leaf residue right up and dries the tracks to prevent any more leaves from sticking.
If the laser works well, it could replace the water and sand-gel mixes that currently used to clean train tracks. Those methods can damage the track, but the laser has a specific wavelength that is largely absorbed by organic matter but not metal. "Organic matter" in the form of squirrels and mice will have all the more reason to keep away from moving trains. [New Scientist]
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