Why Metro is reusing (and bringing back) Cobalt for this year’s refurbishment

By now you’ve surely heard about the unfortunate, if rather delightful, news that some subway cars were nearly sent around the bend by the use of the new coolant silicone liner, known colloquially as “Cobalt.”

Metro has announced that all 634 of its cars—more than half the fleet—will be retrofitted with the retrofitting materials and that the retrofitting would start in January, 2018, after spending a year testing the material in other transit systems.

What’s the latest?

The utility is now planning to banish Cobalt completely, instead beginning a process of developing a solution from two alternative materials, the company VitaFeate says.

Who’s affected?

The 468 engines involved in the retrofitting will be the ones impacted. Metro estimated that 90 percent of the subway cars will be retrofitted (with not every car, of course, given that the Metro system has thousands of cars). Subway trains will be entering service with copper-free vehicles starting Feb. 15.

Some commenters have speculated that Cobalt could have had a significant impact on reliability, but Metro insists the cost of the retrofitting is still less than the estimated $40 million Cobalt costs.

What is Cobalt?

Procter & Gamble began commercializing the material in 1992, and it was widely used as a coolant in the 1990s, though it wasn’t widely adopted in the world. The metal is found in tin and zinc, in or near uranium, nukes, and iron filings, and “the atomic weight density is highly comparable to that of aluminum.”

Why is Cobalt Suddenly Going Out of Style?

It turns out some of the chemicals in Cobalt can be dangerous to humans, so it wasn’t long before communities began to choose against Cobalt to cool water.

Is Cobalt Good or Bad?

Anyone who’s used a faucet with some kind of metal coating knew that drinking it would cause irritation and nausea. These metals, it turned out, are what researchers call “contaminants”: They can lead to poisoning, particularly acute poisoning that requires immediate medical attention. The 2013 news that there was something dangerous about Cobalt prompted the government’s announcement that it was no longer to be used for any cooling purposes.

What Happens to Lidar?

There is an alternative material to Cobalt. But one of the problems with the tech can be challenging: The parts used are virtually impossible to find. And so Metro is looking to find alternative materials (unlike several other transit agencies who have found alternatives).

What’s the fix?

In response to the cobalt debacle, Metro is exploring other potential solutions. VitaFeate has promised to use the same materials that were used to develop the route option of the Metrobus Blue and Orange lines. Is that helpful? It looks like it is!

To better understand how this decision to ban Cobalt will impact Metro’s commuters, I talked to John Alexander, an official at the Metro rail cars division of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (the parent organization for Metro).

The big picture

The Metro’s press release does a better job of explaining why Metro officials made the decision than I ever could. Of course, now that they’ve announced it, we should all be excited about the new amenities to come. “Everyone loves upgrades!” Alexander says, when I ask how the replacement plans will affect service. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Also, despite all of the defense of Cobalt, it’s still disappointing to hear Metro officials are facing serious logistical obstacles to removing the product in stations. (The stations were already painted with replacements after the indefinite station closure announcement.)

“We have to consider that these are emergency-life-saving things,” Alexander says. “There’s a proven, available alternative solution to the thousands of pounds of cobalt that we are actually de-icing as we speak.”

For more on Metro’s great deal:

How Metro will affect your commute

My commute was spent in a panic over the Cobalt problem

Here’s how Metro is eliminating the Cobalt problem

The Cobalt woes have hit us in our pocketbooks

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