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Schaeffler bearings keep lock gates and valves moving on the Panama Canal

Schaeffler bearings keep lock gates and valves moving on the Panama Canal

After a nine-year construction period, the new, third channel of the Panama Canal opened in June 2016, eliminating a bottleneck for global commercial shipping. Schaeffler has supplied more than 3,400 rolling bearings for the canal’s water management systems, including lock gates and valves.

The new channel enables ships with a maximum length of 366 metres (984 feet) and a width of around 50 metres (164 feet) to travel this shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Until now, the passage was restricted to ships that were no more than 290 metres (951 feet) long and 32 metres (105 feet) wide.

Components from Schaeffler play a key role in the operation of the lock gates. The locks are required on both the Atlantic and the Pacific side to allow ships to overcome the 26-metre height difference and pass through the interior of the country. This is achieved using three consecutive locks that are flooded with water from adjoining reservoirs. The reinforced concrete lock gates are enormous – 50 metres (164 feet) wide, 30 metres (98 feet) high and 10 metres (33 feet) thick. 

For safety reasons, two gates have been installed for each barrage that open to the side. The mechanism for opening and closing the gates was developed by Italian engineering company Cimolai Technology. To open and close the gates, each gate has two main drive units that power a cable winch. The drums of the steel cable winches are supported by spherical roller bearings from Schaeffler. 

As extremely high torques of up to 330,000 Nm are required to move the gates, a gearbox is required on each, which increases the torque of the electric motors by a factor of 280. The gearboxes developed by PIV Drives, part of the Brevini Group, are equipped exclusively with tapered, spherical and cylindrical roller bearings from Schaeffler. Most of the bearings are coated with Schaeffler’s Triondur C in order to prevent wear and ensure their operation over 35 years.

At the top and bottom of the reservoirs are two carriages, which guide the 3,100-tonne gates. Here, guide pulleys are used that must withstand not only the dead weight of the gates, but also the pressure of 430 million litres of water per reservoir. The guide pulleys are equipped with spherical roller bearings from Schaeffler.

Bearings for resource-conserving water cycle

One important feature of the new Panama Canal is its three reservoirs that are located next to each barrage. These ensure a resource-conserving water cycle: several valves open in a channel below ground to drain the water from a barrage. The channel connects the water-conserving basins and the barrage. Due to the enormous size of the Hyundai Samho valves (up to seven metres), the valves are also designed as gates. The steel guide pulleys for these gates are equipped with Schaeffler bearings. These bearings are chromium-plated, making them particularly resistant to corrosion. Different variants of Schaeffler’s Durotect coating are used for this application.

Schaeffler engineer Francesco Capittini describes the special challenges for bearing solutions for the Panama Canal: “The slow movement causes a quasi-static load in the bearings with very high forces.” In addition, the Panama Canal must operate reliably 24/7 due to its significance for world trade. Maintenance intervals are scheduled only once every five years.

Despite the harsh conditions and demanding requirements for technology in the expansion of the Panama Canal, Schaeffler was able to develop some bearing solutions based on standard products. The international network of engineers and application specialists also implemented project-specific solutions. 

Dr. Stefan Spindler, a member of Schaeffler’s Executive Board and responsible for the company’s industrial business states: “Our sales team comprises of engineers all over the world, who work with Schaeffler experts from a wide range of disciplines, such as coating engineers and calculation experts, which helps them provide our customers with bearing solutions for even the most challenging of applications.” 

Matteo Maretto, member of the development team at Cimolai Technology, developer of the mechanism for moving the lock gates, agrees: “The bearings are critical components for the overall functioning of the locks. They must work under any circumstances, otherwise the entire facility would come to a standstill. Schaeffler provided valuable support to us during development.”


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