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Roller bearings critical for Panama Canal upgrade

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The newest channel in the century-old Panama Canal eliminates a bottleneck for global commercial shipping, claims the supplier of roller bearings to the project.

Schaeffler has supplied more than 3,400 rolling bearings for the lock technology and for water management. Panama hopes to benefit from the burgeoning trade between the United States and Asia-Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand.

After a nine-year construction period, the new channel opened recently. Ships with a maximum length of 366m and a width of around 50m can travel this shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Until now, the passage was restricted to ships that were no more than 290m long and 32m wide. Bearing solutions from Schaeffler keep lock gates and valves moving.

Components play a key role in the operation of the lock gates. The locks are necessary both on the Atlantic and on the Pacific side so that ships can overcome a difference in height of 26m and pass through the interior of the country. This is achieved by three consecutive locks that are flooded with water from adjoining reservoirs.

The lock gates are made of reinforced concrete. The dimensions are 50m wide, 30m high and 10m 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 gate, each has two main drive units that drive a cable winch. The drums of the steel cable winches are supported by spherical roller bearings made by Schaeffler. Since high torques of up to 330,000 Nm are required to move the gates, there is also a gearbox on each that increases the torque of the electric motors by almost 280 times.

The gearboxes developed by PIV Drives are equipped with tapered, spherical and cylindrical roller bearings made by Schaeffler. Most of the bearings have been coated with Schaeffler’s Triondur C to prevent wear and ensure their operation for 35 years.

Both at the top and at the bottom of the reservoirs, two so-called “carriages” guide the gates that weigh 3,100 tonnes. Here guide pulleys are used that must be able to withstand not only the gates’ dead weight but also the pressure of 430 million litres of water per reservoir. The guide pulleys are equipped with spherical roller bearings supplied by Schaeffler.

One important feature of the new Panama Canal is its three reservoirs that are located next to each barrage. They 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 saving basins and the barrage. Due to the large size of up to seven meters (23 feet), the valves supplied by Hyundai Samho have also been designed as gates.

The steel guide pulleys for these gates are equipped with bearings made by Schaeffler. The bearings used here are chromium-plated, making them particularly resistant to corrosion. Different variants of the Durotect coating developed by Schaeffler are used for this application.

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

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