A 21st Structural Engineering Feat: Lifting Ships Through China’s Highlands

Ask any engineer about the world’s greatest structural feats of the last 20 years, and they may mention France’s Millau Viaduct (tallest cable-supported road bridge), Dubai’s Palm Islands (largest artificial island) or China’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium (biggest steel structure).

Now there’s a new modern marvel to add to the list: the Goupitan Hydropower Station Ship Navigation Project.

Adjacent to the Goupitan Dam and hydropower complex on the Wujiang River, the navigation project boasts ship lifts and canals that help massive cargo vessels travel through China’s highlands. It shortens domestic and international trade by connecting China’s eastern and western cities via the country’s interior. Timken bearing expertise and solutions improve efficiency in the site’s three record-breaking ship lifts.

“It’s exciting,” says Wendy Wang, Timken application engineer based in Shanghai, China. “Gear drive manufacturer Chongqing Gear selected Timken as its sole bearing technical partner for the ship hoisting reducers that help power all three shift lifts. It’s one of the most demanding applications we’ve ever supported.”

The navigation project is the first to use a series of three ship lifts linked by two intermediate canals. The first and third lifts are the world’s largest with the strongest lifting power. The second lift reaches 416 ft. (127 m), making it the highest single lift in the world.

Specialized Engineering for Heavy Lifting

The Goupitan Hydropower Station Ship Navigation Project allows massive cargo vessels to travel through the Guizhou plateau, a high-elevation region in southwest China surrounded by mountains. Featuring the highest navigation buildings in the world, the system transitions ships from water levels at the beginning and end that differ by 652 ft. (199 m)—about the height of a 65-story building.

The lifts must be able to hoist ships weighing up to 500 tons. Each lift uses gear reducers to help transmit and manage power in the ship hoisting system. Reliability and high power density — the ability of a component to manage large amounts of energy relative to its volume — are crucial aspects of bearing selection due to the application’s extreme loads and the desire to minimize equipment size, even at this scale.

Timken engineers collaborated with Chongqing Gear on several design iterations to maximize gear drive performance, often balancing competing requirements to find the perfect design.

For instance, cylindrical and spherical roller bearings that support extreme loads must have tightly-controlled radial internal clearance (RIC), or looseness, to optimize efficiency.

“If RIC is too loose, it creates a lot of vibration and noise,” says Wang. “Too tight, and it generates excessive heat that is detrimental to bearing life and performance. We drew on our global application engineering expertise to solve for this, using our own Timken advanced bearing system analysis tools to estimate the appropriate range for optimal fits.”

End-to-End Support, from Design to Installation

Due to the complexity of the application, Timken designed a diverse combination of 16 cylindrical, spherical and tapered roller bearing sets across the three separate hoist systems. This included custom thin-section large bore spherical roller bearings, large bore cylindrical roller bearings and precision crossed tapered roller bearings to match Chongqing Gears’ high power density requirements.

Wang notes that in addition to supporting Chongqing Gear’s application needs, Timken engineers considered every aspect of system efficiency, right down to streamlining the number of components the operator will need to keep on hand for maintenance.

Timken facilities in China, Italy, Romania and the U.S.—all with unique manufacturing capabilities—produced and delivered the bearings on schedule. When the time came for bearing installation, a Timken engineering manager was onsite to oversee proper mounting of all bearing solutions.

This isn’t the first time Timken supported a “world’s largest” project. The company provides highly-engineered bearing and power transmission solutions for the world’s most powerful wind offshore wind turbine, the world’s largest solar power plant, and enables the most powerful telescope ever constructed.

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