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The Panama canal extension project: an imposing 21st century engineering challange
The Panama canal extension project: an imposing 21st century engineering challange The Panama canal extension project: an imposing 21st century engineering challange


Terra Solutions - Technical Corner - Case studies - The Panama canal extension project: an imposing 21st century engineering challange

In 2006, the Panamanians approved the Canal’s expansion programme, the most ambitious project ever developed in water since its opening in 1914.

The Panama Canal was officially opened on the 15th August 1914. Years of very hard work ended in this marvel of engineering that enabled linking the two great oceans, Atlantic and Pacific. It has been a great infrastructure that has become one of international trade’s favourite routes and has helped towards financial development by shortening sea communication distances and times.

Constant modernization
With over 50 miles in length from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, the Canal has had 943.042 transits since its opening. It has been a navigation route that has undergone many design improvements to accomplish the required levels of excellence.

With this aim, the Panama Canal Authority, an independent entity that operates and manages the Canal, continuously works in the permanent process of its modernization. With the arrival of the 21st Century and to respond to future traffic demands and guarantee its competitiveness as a preferred sea route, the Canal’s Authority developed a master plan that was presented in form of a proposal in 2006. Approved by referendum with an absolute majority of Panamanians, the Extension Project is the most important engineering effort that has taken place in the Canal since it wasfirs built, over a century ago.

The third set of locks project
Among the aims contained in this actionplan, increasing the Canal’s capacity to capture the increasing tonnage demand with the appropriate service levels for each market segment making it more productive, safe and efficient is one of them. Today, the maximum size of the vessels that can go through the Canal is limited by the locks’ chambers current dimensions (33,5 x 320 m). The vessels that reach this size are called Panamax. For the future, the aim is for Post- Panamax vessels, even larger, to go through the Canal.

To achieve this, the Extension Programme’s key component is the Third Set of Locks Project. A complete capacity extension programme whose main components are: building two lock complexes- one on the Atlantic side and one on the Pacific sideeach one with its own tubs to reuse the water; building access routes to the new locks; widening and deepening of the existing channels; and finally, increasing lake Gatun’s maximum level of functioning. With an estimated cost of 5.250 million dollars, including a margin for contingencies and the inflation expected during the construction period, the new set of locks, whose construction will take a maximum of eight years, is expected to be open to traffic for the year 2014, coinciding with the Canal’s first century anniversary.

The third set of locks requires great excavating volumes. In total, it requires excavating approximately 133 million cubic metres of material. To carry out the project, given its size and importance for Panama and International Commerce, the Canal’s Authority decided to look for international companies with a wide experience in building infrastructures of this kind: Dredging International, MAXAM, Yuan Dong 007, Sacyr Vallehermoso SA, Impregilo SpA, Jan De Nul NV, Constructora Urbana, SA, and Meco SA.

A different solution
At the beginning of 2008, the Belgium company Dredging International that was in the tender process for the “Deepening and Extension of the Pacific Entrance and Southern Channel to access the Third Set of Locks” package, contacted with MAXAM to present a different alternative to underwater blasting. From that moment, the Group began
to mobilise personnel and developed a kind of special teams to pump explosives: “The Casetes”, an innovating system to pump explosives in bulk. In parallel, in order to satisfy the project’s basic needs, a Rioflex plant was put up. The technology used in this project was developed by Galdacano’s engineering team and MAXAM Civil Explosives team’s experience.

In the project, MAXAM will carry out the underwater blasts for Dredging International in the deepening of the Southern access Channel to the third set of locks, as well as a package of technical services: blasts design, vibration monitoring and control, fragmentation quality and environmental controls. A wide offer adapted to the peculiarities of a very demanding infrastructure.

“It was proposed to do underwater blasting to deepen to -16,1 metres above sea level. Weather conditions, cultural differences in a team with lots of nationalities, as well as being the starters of the Canal’s extension project, represented an incredible effort”, Manuel López Cano, MAXAM’s Responsible for Application Technologies, points out as the project’s peculiarities. He highlights that in the work team involved in the execution there are a total of 10 expatriate engineers of different fields, apart from 23 local technical people and office personnel.

Vibration levels
One of MAXAM Group’s main values is its utmost respect for nature and its preservation towards a sustainable development. MAXAM’s strict environmental policy has guaranteed that in this project vibration levels have not been surpassed. At the beginning the Group possessed a geological study of the area to be blasted that had been provided by the client. Based on thevtype of rock, and the area’s features- Manuel López Cano points out-a prediction of the maximum applicable charges was made with the help of the technical expert. Previous studies were carried out. These had already been contemplated in our proposal to develop the project. On the 8th of April a test plan was started, carrying out blasts with small charges to get an idea of the terrain’s behaviour. Later, the production blasts results were analysed always keeping vibration levels at much lower levels than what is permitted.

Excellent results
MAXAM’s experience when executing very complex infrastructures is also being very important for its contribution in the construction of the third set of locks and extension of the navigation channels. Executing timeframes are being achieved with very satisfying results, making this project both an historic and technical milestone in its development.

“The Canal’s Authority designed the project to be carried out in six months, and it is going to be developed in record time. Our idea of using pumped explosive instead of cartridge explosive offers us important competitive advantages. We have carried out blasts of up to 32 tonnes of Rioflex. In addition fragmentation technical results are proving excellent; in 144 blasts vibrations have been controlled. Not one claim has occurred and financially the project is being attractive” Manuel López highlights, who also considers the project as a genuine “challenge for imagination”. A challenge that will benefit not only Panama’s economy but also trade between Asia and Europe, going through America.

International benefits
Apart from being the motor for a group of related services and activities, that in turn generate a series of benefits to the national economy, it is a pillar of international trade. This is why its expansion will produce even more benefits other than those directly related to its construction and operation.

When the third set of locks starts operating an increase in the Canal’s traffic will occur. This will also increase the Canal’s financial activities and of all the services related to this sea industry, as well as Panama’s National Treasury direct contributions. In the 2005 fiscal year a total of 279.1 million tonnes of CPSUAB (abbreviation for the Panama Canal’s Universal System of tonnage of Vessels).

It’s expected that this volume of shipping traffic could reach 510 million tonnes in the fiscal year of 2025, which represents an 82% increase. Today’s Canal operating at its maximum capacity, can only manage between 330 and 340 million CPSUAB tonnes a year. With the third set of locks, it will have a maximum capacity of 600 millions CPSUAB tonnes per year and will enable Postpanamax vessels to go through the Canal. Vessels that offer scale economies that reduce the operating cost per TEU between 7% and 17% for the ship owner. Improvements that will significantly benefit shipping transport and that will help this infrastructure to continue providing a quality service.


Last update 2019.08.08
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