The world’s largest ship elevator at Three Gorges Dam in Central China’s Hubei Province has begun trial operations this week.
The trial marks the culmination of a project that first began 22 years ago.
Designed by a Chinese and German team to meet exacting German engineering standards, the ship elevator will help small and medium-sized ships with a maximum water displacement of around 3,000 tonnes to cross the dam. The water level behind the dam is up to 113 meters higher than the downstream river.
The whole ship lift project is made up of an upper bay, an upper gate, a ship chamber, a lower gate and a lower bay.
It comprises of chamber for the ship, with a 120m long pool, 18m wide with a depth of 3.5m. The total weight of all these components, including the water, is 15,500 tonnes.
The Three Gorges Dam itself is a reinforced concrete gravity structure with a length of 2.3km and a height of 175m. Construction of the structure was completed in 2008, with the ship lift being under construction since then.
The key strategies of the Three Gorges Dam project were to increase shipping capacity, generate power and provide flood control to the local area.
Water levels were raised on the upper reaches and flood water storage released to supply the middle-lower reaches during the dry season to improve navigation of the river.
The elevator was part of the original designs submitted in 1992 but was initially envisaged to provide passage to passenger ship and emergency cargo vessels. The popularity of travelling in this fashion has since dwindled following the development of roads and high-speed railway across China.
However, due to technical and safety concerns, the ship elevator project was put on hold in 1994.
The Yangtze River is one of the busiest waterways in the world and was key component of the Chinese government’s 2014 national strategy to develop areas around the river.
The elevator will be operated in conjunction with the five-tier ship lock that has been in use since 2003. The use of the ship lock has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2015, the amount of cargo passing through was 119.6 million tonnes; up from 34.3 million in 2004.
In the first quarter of 2016, freight rose nearly 8% on the previous year.
The ship elevator will mean that small to medium-sized vessels will no longer need to pass the dam via the ship lock, saving them between three and four hours. This will free up the ship lock for larger vessels to pass through.
Efforts are being made to improve the way the ship elevator is used by vessels.
A senior official with the navigation authority commented: “We are coordinating with transport authorities to introduce new ship standards that can fit in the ship lift, and discussing with travel agencies to design targeted products for those who are interested.
“The ship lift would add new flavour and experience to the classic Three Gorges tour.”
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