The canal between oceans

What: ThyssenKrupp lifts; Where: Panama Canal extension

Bird’s-eye view of new Panama Canal extension to right, with its nine water-saving basins. The two older lanes are to the left.
Bird’s-eye view of new Panama Canal extension to right, with its nine water-saving basins. The two older lanes are to the left. · Credit: The Panama Canal Authority

When the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, it handled 1,000 ships a year. By 2008, the annual figure had risen to 14,702 and the canal was creaking under the weight of demand. Its physical infrastructure lagged and it was threatened by competition from other routes, including the Russian North Sea Route and Canadian Northwest Passage as warmer waters in the Arctic Ocean open the passage for longer each year. The existing locks, which are in sets of two, had become constrained by their size at 33.53m wide, 320.04m long and 12.56m deep.

While expansion plans have been tabled since the 1930s, in 2006 President Martín Torrijos formally proposed the project to run another, wider waterway alongside the existing canal – coupled with a referendum on the issue – saying it would make Panama a First World country. A decisive 76.8 percent voted in favour.

The Grupo Unidos por el Canal, a consortium of Sacyr Vallehermoso of Spain, Impregilo of Italy, Jan de Nul of Belgium and Constructora Urbana of Panama, began construction in 2007. After two years of delays and 50 million m³ of excavation, the expansion finally opened on 26 June. The new traffic lane has been created by a set of similar three-level staircase locks at both the Caribbean and Pacific ends of the 81km route. Each set has a total of nine water-saving basins to reuse water previously wasted in raising the ships through the 26m height difference. At a cost of $3.2 billion, the new sets of locks double the waterway’s capacity and, at 55m wide, 427m long and 18.3m deep, provide access for the world’s largest ‘post-Panamax’ ships. Where a Panamax could carry 4,500 standard containers, these super ships manage 12,000. 

Map showing the route of the Panama Canal.
Map showing the route of the Panama Canal.

As part of this work, the German firm Thyssen­Krupp installed seven new elevators in concrete shafts for circulation around each site: one to access the control tower, the others split into pairs around each lock level change. Beneath the locks, the shafts link to cross tunnels 35m below ground level, and are complex as a result of the need to be watertight and completely spark-proof to avoid danger of explosion. 

Peter Bjorn, vice president of new installation and modernisations, ThyssenKrupp Elevator in Latin America, explained: ‘If one of the boats sailing through the lock had a leak, the gases from that could accumulate in the cross-under tunnels.’ It is these fumes that could be catastrophically ignited by a spark.

‘This requires very specific components,’ explained Bjorn. ‘The technology existed already, through using more magnetic sensors rather than open contacts and by insulating the very small connections. Oil refineries, factories and mines have similar requirements.’

For ThyssenKrupp – as for the main contractor, which installed its own industrial parks to produce aggregates and prepare concrete mixes – logistics were the project’s biggest difficulty. 

Between 10 and 12 installers were tasked to complete the project in five months to make up for previous time delays. This wasn’t a problem for workers near Panama City, but personnel on the Caribbean end had to be put up there.

‘There are no restaurants around the corner and during construction it wasn’t possible to get from one side to the other without taking a 30km drive,’ said Bjorn.