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First ship passes through new Panama Canal

Panama expansion new series of locks

The first mega cargo ship measuring 300m long and 48m wide has passed through the newly expanded Panama Canal.

The $5.2bn (£3.1bn) expansion programme was the most significant construction project on the canal since it opened in 1914. The project involved the construction of the so-called ‘third set of locks’: two complexes of three-step locks, including three basins for the reuse of water per chamber, with one set on the Pacific side and another on the Atlantic. 

The new expanded locks are 427m long, 55m wide and 18.3m deep, 21m wider and 5.5m deeper than those in the original canal, but use less water due to water-saving basins that recycle 60% of the water used per transit, said the Panama Canal Authority. The system of sliding sluice gates allows ships to rise 27m above sea level to the sail across Gatún Lake after which they are lowered to sea level by the other set of locks.

Construction on the mega project started in 2007 and it has been built by Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), a consortium comprising Spanish contractor Sacyr, Italian contractor Salini Impregilo, the Netherland’s Jan De Nul and Constructora Urbana of Panama (CUSA).

According to Sacyr, one of the major challenges was the complexity of the geology in the Pacific sector with active fault lines and seismic activity adding to the construction difficulties.

The contractor said: “For nearly seven years now, we have overcome many challenges of various types. The project has not only been highly complex technically, administratively, logistically and management-wise, but also due to the strict standards of quality that were required and the demanding timeline for executing the planned large volumes.

“Added to this were aspects such as the adverse weather during construction, with nine months of rain per year, and the obligation to not interfere with navigation in the existing canal.”

It also added that the water filtration limits through the gates were restrictive and uncommon for the systems, so the GUPC developed solutions based on combinations of elements of high-density polyethylene (UHMWPE) and high-performance steels.

“This constitutes cutting-edge advances for these types of sealing elements,” added Sacyr.

Water saving basins by the locks

Water-saving basins by the locks

The new expanded locks are 427m long, 55m wide and 18.3m deep, 21m wider and 5.5m deeper than those in the original canal, but use less water due to water-saving basins that recycle 60% of the water used per transit, said the Panama Canal Authority.

The project has been dogged with problems and in 2014 work was halted for two weeks after GUPC stopped work after disputes over cost overruns.

Currently, the Panama Canal represents the main economic activity of Panama. It directly contributes 6% of the annual GDP, generates 13,100 direct jobs, and in 2015 it reached a total revenue figure of £1.9bn, thereby contributing £700M to the state. Sacyr said that with the expansion, revenue was expected to increase by £9.4bn in 10 years.

The expansion project was carried out to increase the navigation capacity of the canal by almost doubling the cargo traffic from 330M.t to 600M.t per year and increasing the capacity for ships from 12,000 to up to 16,000 per year. It will also allow the passage of larger vessels, the so-called Post-Panamax ships, carrying up to 12,000 containers each.

New Panama Canal facts and figures

  • There are three chambers of locks on each side, with each chamber measuring 427m long by 55m wide by 18.3m deep
  • 16 gates, the largest of which is 33m high and weighs 4,300t
  • 4.5M.m3 of structural concrete poured, the equivalent of two Great Pyramids of Giza
  • 220,00t of reinforcing steel, comparable to 22 Eiffel Towers
  • 62M.m3 of extracted earth, equal to 2.6M dumper truck loads
  • 7.1Mm3 dredged, the equivalent of 2,840 Olympic-size swimming pools
  • 5,000m3 of concrete poured daily on each side of the project
  • Over 4,200 animals have been rescued and relocated.

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