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  Panama Canal Expansion
In August of 1914, as the world teetered on the brink of war, the Panama Canal opened for business. After decades of political wrangling, titanic construction work and a mounting death toll, the project had become the largest engineering project ever undertaken, encompassing almost fifty miles excavated through disease-ridden jungle. Its completion heralded a vital shortcut for trade routes between the Atlantic and Pacific. Over the passing decades, the number of vessels using the canal has increased exponentially.

Due to the numerical and physical volume of ships that annually traverse the waterway, in 2006 an expansion project was proposed to swell its capacity. It was approved unanimously by Panama's National Assembly and subsequently by its citizens, who voted overwhelmingly for the project to be given the go-ahead. Originally, the canal consisted of two lanes at either end leading from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans into the canal's artificial lakes.

The expansion project will see a third lane added to each side, allowing a greater number of ships to enter the waterway. On the Pacific side, this will incorporate the disused channels begun by the US after embarking on a similar development in 1940. In addition, the existing straits will be widened and deepened to increase the maximum dimensions of viable ships (a formula known as the 'Panamax'). Up to 40,000 jobs will be created over the course of the project's life cycle, most of which revolve around the building of the new lock gate systems and dredging the way for their construction.

Since work began, around 30 million cubic metres have been cleared from the lakes and synthetic firths. A primary challenge in designing the new lock gates was to ensure that the increased operating capacity would have no detrimental impact on the lake that feeds the canal. This was achieved by devising an automated system using custom-built hydraulics to recycle the water used in each stage of the lock. As a result, 60% less water has to be taken from Lake Gatun, in spite of the new canal's larger lock chambers.

Fittingly, the expansion is scheduled to be completed by 2014, just in time for the canal's centenary. Due to the spiralling costs, corporate infighting and allegations of bureaucratic corruption that invariably bug such mega-projects however, it remains to be see whether the new canal is ready in time. Whatever the case, there is no disputing that the Panama Canal expansion is one of the most ambitious engineering projects undertaken since the inception of this famous trade route. is a free construction news and resource site established by construction professionals for fellow industry members.

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