The Panama Canal Expansion is one of the most challenging engineering infrastructure projects worldwide and the largest project at the Canal since its original construction. The project reates a new lane of traffic along the Canal through the construction of a new set of locks, doubling the waterway’s capacity. The Program consists of several components/projects. Among all, the Third Set of Locks is considered the most complex and challenging one. The Third Set of Locks is the construction of two lock complexes in the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Panama Canal, creating a third lane of traffic for bigger ships.

The main objective of the Expansion Program is to increase capacity to meet demand growth with enhanced customer service. The Expansion doubles the Canal’s capacity, having a direct impact on economies of scale and international maritime trade. It helps maintain the Canal’s competitiveness and the value of the maritime route through Panama.

The previous locks allowed the passage of vessels that can carry up to 5,000 TEUs. After the expansion the Post-Panamax vessels are able to transit through the Canal, with up to 12,600 TEUs.

The Panama Canal Expansion Program has become a significant source of job opportunities and training for professionals in different job fields. More than 30,000 jobs have been created since its execution.

Activities under the Panama Canal Expansion Program abide by strict environmental standards. Along with its contractors for each of the components and in coordination with Panama’s National Environmental Authority (ANAM) and the Aquatic Resources Authority (ARAP), the companies in charge of the works conducted wildlife rescue and relocation activities as work progresses. Mammals, reptiles and birds have been rescued and relocated to safe areas.

As part of the efforts to preserve the cultural heritage, highly-valuable archaeological items, such as a 16th-century Spanish dagger, pre-Colombian arrowheads and bottles dating from last century have been recovered from excavation sites, restored and preserved, thanks to the executing companies. A contract for paleontological research signed by the Panama Canal Authority with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) concluded in 2012. As a result of the work, 8,862 items were collected and catalogued, of which 5,377 are made up of rock and sediments and 3,485 are fossils.

The contract was awarded to the international consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal, S.A. (GUPC).

Grupo Unidos por el Canal

Consortium Members:

  • Salini Impregilo S.p.A. – (Italy)
  • Sacyr Vallehermoso S.A. – Leader (Spain)
  • Jan de Nul n.v. – (Belgium)
  • Constructora Urbana, S.A. – (Panama)

Designers (subcontractors):

  • Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) – Leader (United States)
  • IV-Groep – (Holland)
  • Tetra Tech – (United States)

Gate Manufacturers (subcontractor):

  • Cimolai – (Italy)

It was awarded on July 15, 2009.

Work began on August 25, 2009.

One lock complex is located on the Pacific side to the southwest of the existing Miraflores Locks. The other complex is located to the east of the existing Gatun Locks.

Each lock complex has three levels or chambers. The configuration is similar to the previous Gatun Locks. The project creates a new lane with one lock on each side, providing a capacity to handle vessels up to 49 meters (160 feet) wide, 366 meters (1,200 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) deep, or with a cargo volume of up to 170,000 DWT and 12,600 TEU.

Each lock chamber has three water-saving basins, which reuse 60 percent of the water in each transit. There are a total of nine basins for each of the two lock complexes. There are a total of 18 basins for the entire project. Each water-saving basin is approximately 70 meters wide by 5.50 meters deep.

Lock chambers are 427 meters (1,400 feet) long by 55 meters (180 feet) wide, and 33 meters deep.

The construction of the new locks includes the use of reinforced steel, a technology which did not exist during the construction of the previous Panama Canal. Completing both new lock complexes requires a total of 5 million cubic meters of concrete. The new lock complexes requires more concrete than the 3.4 million cubic meters used for the previous Panama Canal, since they are 60% bigger.

The new locks have 16 rolling gates operating from concrete recesses located perpendicular to the lock chambers. This is different from the previous locks which used miter gates. Such gate configuration turns each recess into a sort of dry dock which will allow maintenance of the gate on site without the need to remove it and therefore interrupt operations. This design increases the capacity and flexibility of lock operations, and allows for shorter Maintenance time.

There are a total of 16 rolling gates required for the new locks (eight on each complex).

The gates have different dimensions depending on their location in the lock chamber. They are all 58 m long, 10 m wide, and the height depends on the location but between the shortest one is 23 meters and the lowest one is 33 m height depending on the chamber.

The gates weight on average 3,200 tons. However, since they have different sizes, weight can range from 2,500 tons to as much as 4,000 tons.