by Greg Simpson

Immersed tunnel breaks record

The impressive Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau
TUNNEL 2_opt.jpeg
The impressive Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau fixed-link project includes an immersed tunnel with a record-breaking length of almost seven kilometres, as Chinese infrastructure development hits overdrive – underwater, to boot.

The 8 850 kilometre Great Wall of China, built during the Qin dynasty 2 200 years ago, is one of the wonders of the world. But infrastructure construction in China today is advancing as never before.

In 2009, construction began on a project to link Hong Kong with Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai. The link will be one of the region’s most technically complex engineering projects ever. It includes a 30-kilometre dual three-lane carriageway with a 23-kilometre bridge, an almost seven-kilometre tunnel and two artificial islands. The tunnel will be the world’s longest deepwater immersed tunnel for road traffic. 

Originally proposed by prominent Hong Kong businessman Gordon Wu in 1983, the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau fixed link – when completed in 2016 – will enhance deeper economic integration between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta region in southern China. 

In October 2011, Trelleborg Infrastructure signed a contract with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) for the tunnel’s sealing system. The seals were chosen for their innovative design, capable of ensuring water-tightness even in the event of seismic activity. The joints will be sealed with a Trelleborg sealing system consisting of Gina gaskets, Omega seals and waterstops as well as other seal designs. 

Given the size of the project and its huge engineering challenges, CCCC stressed that it wanted the highest possible quality. 

“We were able to offer a total sealing system, which none of our competitors can do. We could also show a good reference list that included many big tunnel projects in China, and we have been able to support CCCC with our outstanding engineering knowledge,” says Ruud Bokhout, business development director at Trelleborg Infrastructure Netherlands, in an official release.

An immersed tunnel consists of several large, long concrete elements that are constructed onshore. Seals are used between the sections to keep the water out of the tunnel. Each element is towed by barges to its final position and then immersed in the water. 

“The bigger seals will be manufactured in the Netherlands, while the smaller seals and waterstops will be produced in Trelleborg’s plant in Qingdao, China,” says Bokhout. 

One of the project’s major challenges is the water depth of more than 40 metres. The tunnel will be constructed on a soft seabed − a complicated feat which requires soil improvement to prevent elements from settling in rough open waters beneath navigation channels trafficked by the world’s largest ships. The geographical area bears many similarities to the Busan–Geoje fixed link in South Korea, which opened in 2010 and for which Trelleborg supplied the Omega seals. 

The tunnel design has to address the risk of earthquakes. The seals between the tunnel elements must be extremely resilient and stay watertight when exposed to seismic ground movements. 

With 33 large elements submerged at depths of more than 40m below the surface, the project pushes the boundaries of that which is technically possible. 

“Safety is of paramount importance, and our products are critical, especially as it is virtually impossible to make repairs once the tunnel is in place,” says Bokhout. 

The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau tunnel project will contain 34 Gina gaskets with circumferences of around 90m. They are produced in a mould, each weighing nine tonnes, and must be transported in a 12-metre open-top container. 

There will also be 34 large and 219 smaller Omega seals as well as rubber waterstops with vulcanised steel strips to make the concrete sections watertight. 

Photographs courtesy of Trelleborg

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