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The largest engineering project of the 21st century

Sacyr successfully concludes the expansion of the Panama Canal

Video of the Third Set of Locks in less than 1 minute:

● The consortium led by Sacyr has built the Third Set of Locks: two new 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.

● It allows expanding canal navigation capacity by up to 600 million tons annually and allows the passage of larger, Post-Panamax ships.

● Over 10,000 workers of 40 different nationalities participated during construction.

● An environmentally responsible project, with a system of basins that save 60% in water.

● Major technical challenges arose during the project, to which Sacyr responded with a high level of innovation by developing new solutions that mark a before and after in the era of modern engineering.

Canal de Panama
Canal de Panama_1
Canal de Panama_2
Logotipo Océano
Logotipo Sacyr

Sacyr, which leads the consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), also integrated by Salini Impregilo, Jan De Nul and CUSA, has successfully completed the expansion of the Panama Canal, the largest engineering project of the 21st century, one of the most emblematic of humanity and an unprecedented challenge in the modern history of infrastructures.

The project consisted in 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 locks are 427 meters long, 55 meters wide and 18.3 meters deep. Over 10,000 workers of 40 different nationalities participated on the project, all of whom were highly qualified at all levels.

It is also an environmentally responsible project, with a system of basins that save 60% in water. Likewise, the passage of larger ships with a capacity of up to 12,000 containers each reduces CO2 emissions by over 160 million tons per year.

According to Manuel Manrique, Chairman of Sacyr, “the expansion works of the Panama Canal have been one of the most emblematic of humanity and have represented a true challenge for Sacyr. Since its beginning, we have had to face technical, logistic and administrative challenges of enormous complexity. Sacyr has demonstrated its management and innovation capacity by successfully concluding this magnificent project, therefore delivering an end product of top quality that positions us, not only as a company but also as a country, at the head of global civil engineering”.

An unprecedented project

The consortium led by Sacyr, GUPC, won the call for bids of the project in July 2009, and it began construction work in August of that same year. Delivery of the project to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is planned for the upcoming 31 May, after conducting successful testing of the structures and installed systems.

For nearly seven years now, Sacyr has overcome many challenges of various types, given that the project has been highly complex, not only technically, administratively, logistically and management-wise, but also due to the strict standards of quality that were required and the demanding time-line 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.

In this regard, the complexity of a project of this magnitude resides not only in its large dimensions but also in its incredible figures:

Innovation to overcome the main challenges

For Sacyr, the project has represented a great challenge from the technical, orographic, geologic and climate point of view, both before beginning the project and during the works, given that new challenges were posed in the models for responding to seismic reactions, in selecting the best materials and the combination thereof and regarding the most suitable, efficient and sustainable structural design

These challenges were overcome through innovation, plus new contributions were worked on during development of the project. Highlights of these challenges include the design, manufacture, movement and installation of the new gates (a total of 16), which have huge dimensions and required pinpoint placement. The gates are sliding and not hinged in a V-shape like the current ones, rather they are rolling and are installed and move perpendicularly to the chambers. The gates are a prototype in many aspects: in their buoyancy system for transmitting loads to the support and travelling system at 10% of their weight, as well as in the sealing and support system of the gate in the closing phase of the chamber.

The steel structures were also optimized, which presented demanding requirements regarding fatigue and resistance to seismic loads.

The water filtration limits through the gates were restrictive and uncommon for these systems, so the GUPC developed solutions based on combinations of elements of high-density polyethylene (UHMWPE) and high-performance steels that constitute cutting-edge advances for these types of sealing elements.

One of the other major challenges that should be highlighted is the complexity of the geology in the Pacific sector (active faults, seismic activity) and the fact that only this sector had ideal rock (basalt) for concrete production, which had to be transferred from one sector to the other through the canal.

Likewise, the development of concrete mixes that complied with the requirement of water tightness against penetration by the chloride ion and responded to the guaranteed durability of 100 years meant a long and precise research process. This process included the participation of personnel from Sacyr and from the Eduardo Torroja Institute of Construction Sciences in Spain, resulting in mixes that met water tightness and strength requisites and at the same time had the necessary consistency and workability to be poured on site using means of mass production. This work has been recognized by obtaining official approval in the US. There was also the added complexity of having to transfer the aggregate material, which was extracted from the Pacific and had to be taken in large barges to the Atlantic zone.

Other innovations included the system and software for control and operation, which were completely developed and manage 70,000 signals. Furthermore, they are characterized by their robustness against incorrect switching, human error and special events.

Finally, other challenges that were successfully met included the specified reliability, safety and redundancy features with which the facilities have been equipped, plus the reduction of water consumption for each lock and the ease of maintenance.

Respect for communities and the natural environment

Development of the project was also exemplary regarding the communities that live in the vicinity of the canal and regarding the natural environment.

The consortium has maintained continuous communication with the communities, and it has kept a social and financial commitment regarding environmental impact. Before beginning the construction work, meetings were held to explain the activities of the project and provide the necessary information. Activities were created to involve the people living in nearby communities, who were also given timely information about progress of the expansion work.

There was also environmental monitoring of any eventual impact by the project regarding the natural water, air, noise and waste water, with periodic environmental and social audits.

In this regard, the expansion of the Panama Canal is the only project in the world for which all participating people had to receive initial environmental and social training. Sacyr raised the awareness of every new worker hired on the project through routine training talks on environmental and social matters and through sensitization talks for field staff. Approximately 21,800 people received the standard initial training talk of 16 hours.

Respect for flora and fauna was also present throughout the entire project, with over 4,200 animals having been rescued and relocated.

Expansion objectives

The objectives of expansion were the following: increasing the navigation capacity of the canal, which had reached its maximum limit, by doubling cargo traffic from 330 million tons per year up to 600 million tons per year and increasing the capacity for ships up to 16,000 per year, versus the current 12,000; allowing the passage of larger ships, the so-called Post-Panamax ships, carrying up to 12,000 containers each; and adapting the canal to the behavior of the global maritime fleet, given that maritime commerce is growing at an annual rate of 2.4% and the containerized cargo market is increasing at 8.4%.

Currently, the Panama Canal represents the main economic activity of Panama. It directly contributes 6% of the annual GDP, it generates 13,100 direct jobs, and in 2015 it reached a total revenue figure of 2.61 billion dollars, thereby contributing 1.03 billion dollars to the state. With the expansion, revenue is expected to be increased by 12.5 billion dollars in 10 years.

About Sacyr

Sacyr is a diversified multinational group. Its venture on innovation and international expansion has made it a benchmark company in construction and in the management of infrastructures, industrial projects and services. It is listed on the Ibex 35. With activity on all five continents, it provides sustainable business management, thereby improving its technological leadership and its levels of efficiency in all lines of business activity.