Skip to content ↓

Panama Canal modernization taps civil engineering technologies

One of the civil engineering wonders of the 20th century, the Panama Canal, is launching a $1 billion modernization and improvement program that will put it in the forefront of the 21st-century transportation options, the Panama Canal administrator told an MIT audience.

"The Panama Canal is the most important logistics and transportation center in Latin America," said Administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta, giving the Richard Mullin Memorial Lecture on Sept. 27. "With modernization, Panama could become as big as Singapore." A recent long-term traffic demand forecast indicates that by 2050, the number of ships using the canal will double to nearly 28,000 a year.

The Panama Canal, completed by the US Corps of Engineers in 1914, lifts nearly 14,000 ships a year through three 110-by-1,000-foot concrete locks up 85 feet to Lake Gatun, then back down to sea level through three more locks. Transporting vessels between the Caribbean and Pacific oceans requires about 10 hours and 55 million gallons of water for each transit. The canal's safety record is strong despite the fact that ships have only about two feet clearance on each side. Only 14 minor accidents occurred last year.

A comprehensive modernization plan based on advanced engineering technologies is expected to increase canal capacity by 20 percent, permit two-way traffic, accommodate huge container vessels, and increase water resources so ships can pass through fully loaded even during droughts, Zubieta said.

Large-scale improvements include the Gold Hill excavation, which required the removal of 36 million cubic meters of dry and dredged material to widen and cut a stretch of the passage to permit two-way traffic. Additional widening and deepening excavations are underway.

The canal has adopted the Enhanced Vessel Traffic Management System that integrates vessel tracking with a maritime operations information database and uses global positioning system information.

Civil engineers are considering a host of projects to accommodate the increasing number of container ships that can be as much as 1,265 feet long, 180 feet wide and 50 feet deep. They are also planning to expand water resources through methods that may include tapping nearby watersheds or building a system of lateral basins that will allow the reuse of millions of gallons of water without contaminating the locks with salt water.

Zubieta was concurrently appointed by the US government to be administrator of the former Panama Canal Commission and to serve on the Panama Canal Authority by the Panamanian government, which now operates the canal. Born in Panama City, he earned degrees in industrial and civil engineering at Texas A&M University. Before joining the Panama Canal project, he was the president of one of the largest construction companies in Panama.

The Richard L. Mullin Lectureship, endowed by a gift from Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates, Inc. and hosted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Center for Construction Research and Education, brings eminent architectural, engineering and construction professionals to campus to address contemporary issues.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 24, 2001.

Related Topics

More MIT News