Gerdau provides its PS flat sheets and PZC Z-type sheet piling for the Panama Canal expansion project
August 2011 - The Panama Canal is located at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and has been providing an efficient passageway for commerce since it opened on Aug. 15, 1914. “A vessel laden with coal sailing from the east coast of the United States to Japan via the Panama Canal saves about 3,000 miles versus the shortest alternative all-water route, and for a vessel laden with bananas sailing from Ecuador to Europe, the distance saved is about 5,000 miles,” according to the canal’s website.
Today, approximately 90 percent of non-bulk cargo is transported by container, and as a result, container ships are growing in size. The Panama Canal currently can handle ships with a maximum capacity of 5,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, a measurement of cargo capacity based on the volume of a 20-foot-long intermodal container. These ships are aptly named Panamax vessels because of the limitations on width and length imposed by the canal.
To better accommodate these ships and make room for their larger post-Panamax cousins, the canal currently is undergoing a major $5 billion-plus expansion that will double its capacity, allowing it to handle vessels with cargo capacity up to 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units. The renovation will include construction of new post-Panamax locks on the Pacific and Atlantic sides, construction of three access channels and the extending and deepening of the existing ship navigation channels.
Gerdau Long Steel North America, a Tampa-Fla.-based division of Gerdau, the 10th largest steel producer in the world, manufactured approximately 17,000 tons of sheet piling for the Panama Canal expansion. The piling will be used for the excavation of the Pacific Access Channel and the construction of the Borinquen Dam. This construction will provide improved access to the Gaillard Cut, previously the narrowest section of the canal.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of the historical expansion of the Panama Canal,” says David Maedgen, manager of piling sales for Gerdau. “Some of us take it for granted, but on my site visit, I realized that it is a world-renowned landmark both commercially and from a leisure standpoint. There are so many cruise ships and container ships that pass through the canal. It was an honor to say our steel went into a major portion of that expansion.”
He notes activity at the canal “never stops. When you look on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides, there are ships lined up waiting at anchor to go through the canal. It’s just incredible to see the commerce that takes place.”
A team effort
Maedgen says Gerdau became involved with the Panama Canal project through its primary distributor and strategic piling partner, L.B. Foster Co., Pittsburgh, a manufacturer, fabricator and distributor of products and services for the rail, construction, energy and utility markets. To minimize project lead time, the Panama Canal Authority purchased materials directly from Gerdau through L.B. Foster.
“L.B. Foster was pleased to partner with Gerdau on such a meaningful and important project,” said Don Foster, senior vice president of L.B. Foster’s construction products group, in a press release. “We have developed a great relationship through the years, and our excellent performance on this project demonstrates both our individual strengths and our strengths as a team.”
Gerdau produced 10,335 steel sheets for the project, including flat sheets with the strongest interlock commercially available and PZC Z-type sheet piling that is rolled domestically to be wider, lighter and stronger than typical domestic Z-piling. The PZC sheet piling also provides a ball- and-socket interlock that offers extra flexibility when setting and interlock strength when driving. Maedgen says this type of material typically is used for beam strength in the support of excavation, levee construction and port expansion.
Gerdau also has provided these products for canals in Holland as well as “two large, direct-bid contracts, also obtained by L.B. Foster Co., for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the rebuilding of the levees and the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System that they’re putting in place in New Orleans. Mostly Z-pile and some flat sheets were used to bolster the protection of New Orleans, and we’re proud to be part of that,” says Maedgen.
PS flat sheets were the primary Gerdau product used on the Panama Canal project, according to Maedgen. “The flat sheets have strong interlocks, which allow them to be driven into the soil while interlocked to form a circle that performs in hoop-tension. That circle is filled with a select combination of rocks and soil to make a giant column structure. These circular cells are then interlocked together by additional sheets that connect from the outside of one cell to the outside of another cell. [For this project] the circles were connected together in a straight line to form the base of the Borinquen Dam.
“The Z-piles are designed for a different type of a load,” he continues. “They are not typically put in circular orientations; they are put in more of a straight line. They are designed for their beam strength to resist being pushed over, so based on your soil conditions and loading, you’ll design with the proper Z-piling to support that load.”
Gerdau produces the Z-piles in its Petersburg, Va., mill, and the PS flat sheets are made in Midlothian, Texas, which is about 25 miles south of Dallas.
“We produced the material in those mills, and then it had to be transported to the port in Houston by rail car or trucks,” Maedgen says. “The material was then loaded into four boats to take down to the canal. The boats took the material to the Atlantic side of the canal, it was unloaded and then transferred to trucks. Those trucks took the material across Panama to the Pacific side of the canal and to a designated storage site.”
L.B. Foster transported the steel from Gerdau’s mills to the jobsite in Panama, which required 161 rail cars, four ocean-going vessels and 880 truckloads as well as customs approvals and technical consulting regarding storage schematics for the material.
“The material had to be handled very specifically and properly to offload it from a boat, put it on a truck, take it across the country from the Atlantic side to the Pacific side, put it in a storage yard and stack it properly,” Maedgen says. “It’s one thing to transport material from Midlothian, Texas, to Houston, Texas, where we all speak the same language and have the same laws,” Maedgen says. “When you do that in a foreign country, it adds additional challenges.”
However, because of the extensive planning and cooperation, “the project went flawlessly,” he notes. “The Panama Canal Authority was ecstatic. They were very pleased with the performance of the material and of the delivery. We wanted to perform in an excellent manner. We’re very comfortable with the production of these flat sheets and we’re proud of our quality and the function of our product in the field. We enjoy making this product and we look forward to additional large projects both domestically and globally.” MM
➜ The Panama Canal is approximately 80 kilometers long between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
➜ At 13.7 kilometers long, the Gaillard Cut is the narrowest portion of the canal.
➜ Approximately 13,000 to 14,000 vessels travel through the canal every year.
➜ Commercial transportation activities through the canal represent about 5 percent of world trade.
➜ Since the canal first opened, it has provided transit service to more than 815,000 vessels. Despite the increase in number and size of vessels, the total average time spent by a vessel at the Panama Canal is less than 24 hours.
➜ The Panama Canal operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with a workforce of about 9,000.
➜ Spending each year on operation and maintenance training programs is $10 million.
➜ Panamanians comprise more than 95 percent of the canal’s workforce, and through 2010, more than 8,000 Panamanians have taken part in the expansion work.
➜ Water-saving basin technology on the new locks will save 60 percent of the water used in a lockage. Even though the new locks will have larger chambers, they will use 7 percent less water per transit than the existing locks.
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