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Engineering the Panama Canal

September 21st, 2012

Built almost a century ago, the Panama Canal is a man-made waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This waterway helped trade and international commerce. Since then cargo ships have gotten much bigger and wider every decade. Now the challenge being faced is how to widen the Panama Canal without serious disruption to the citizens and environment that surrounds it.

On any given day, the Panama Canal sees through more than 40 cargo ships. Most ships are three times the size of a football field. Some of these ships have a $40,000 a day operational budget and may take a week to get through the canal. Each year over 14,000 ships pass through the canal, which was made even before ships of the Titanic’s size were designed.

In the past, companies designed ships to fit the canal. They were called Panamax ships. Now, companies are building bigger ships, now known as post-Panamax ships, with more cargo space. These ships cannot fit through the current canal and must ship their goods by rail across the United States to the opposite side. They now encompass 37 percent of the world’s cargo ships. This presented an urgent dilemma for the current canal.

Panama is spending over $5.25 billion to modernize the canal. The plan includes two new sets of single-lane, three-step locks-one at the Atlantic and two at the Pacific. The new lock chambers will be 1400 ft. long, 180 ft. wide and 60 ft. deep, each measuring more than a mile and a half lengthwise.  New channels and deeper, wider versions of existing shipping lanes to fit the post-Panamax ships. Over 130 million cubic meters of rock and soil will be stirred up, enough to fill any major skyscraper over 130 times. These changes will help to double the canal’s capacity.

The biggest challenge facing engineers with this project was not the logistics of rebuilding, but the need to save water, as it becomes scarce when using the substance for storage. Much of the water in the locks washes out to the ocean, rather than being recycled, as it is in many other lock structures throughout the world. The canal requires over two billion gallons of water per day to fill the locks for ships.

The engineering team found the answer from a lock example in Germany. Designers allowed for three shallow basins across from each chamber in the new locks. The basins will capture 60 percent of the water from the locks as they empty. This water will then partially refill the locks as another ship comes through. Because of this the new chambers will hold 65 percent more water and use seven percent less per transit.

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