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Khalifa Port among Largest, Most Automated

2.7 sq km man-made island off the shore of Abu Dhabi
Work is ongoing on a 2.7 sq km man-made island off the shore of Abu Dhabi to accommodate the first phase of a megascale container port and development zone. © ADPC 

Khalifa Port, the first semiautomated container port in the Middle East, covers a massive 2.7 sq km artificial island—but plans already exist to significantly expand the immense cargo-moving complex.

October 2, 2012—Abu Dhabi’s new $7.2-billion Khalifa Port and adjacent Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD) constitute a “megaproject by any world standard,” according to Steve Kay, CEng, a program manager for Bechtel, which is overseeing the project. How big? The first phase of a potentially five-phase project to create a new economic engine for the capital of the United Arab Emirates comprises 51 sq km, 9 sq km of that dedicated to the port. In fact, a 2.7 sq km artificial island extending 5 km into the sea was created just for the container terminal and operations buildings for the port.

“The enormity of the project—and the logistical and physical challenges—almost defy belief,” said Tony Douglas, the chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC), who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Douglas called the numbers “staggering,” and that’s more than hyperbole. The project involved 40 million cubic meters of sand shifted; 60 km of new roads, varying from 2 to 12 lanes, and five interchanges constructed; 250 km of piping laid; and 125 km of 33kV and 11kV cabling installed. Next door, the KIZAD industrial park required raising the site’s ground level “across 20 square kilometers by the height of a person,” the equivalent, he said, “of 400,000 cubic meters per week of sand and other material.” (Bechtel puts the number even higher, between 450,000 and 500,000 cu m.)

The project required 100 million man-hours and peaked this summer at just over 16,000 people on-site. “It was a massive, massive project to get all of that opened on one day, on time, and within budget,” Kay says.

The reason the project is so enormous is that Khalifa Port is a centerpiece of Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to diversify the emirate’s economy beyond oil. According to Douglas, the emirate’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures just over $100 billion a year—roughly 60 percent from oil and gas. The emirate hopes to grow its GDP to $400 billion by 2030, 60 percent coming from industries other than oil and gas. The 2030 plan is meant, Kay says, for the “Abu Dhabi government to demonstrate to themselves and the local population how they will diversify away from the traditional GDP of oil. This is really a key part of the diversification strategy.”

 Aerial view of man-made island displaying operations building and new roads

Construction of the terminal operations building, the tallest on the
port island, is proceeding on schedule, as is construction of 60
km of new roads that vary from 2 to 12 lanes each. © ADPC 

The port, its backers hope, will create as many as 100,000 jobs when it reaches full build-out in 2030. What does full build-out look like? Try a total land mass of 417 sq km, which is about 2/3 the size of Singapore, or about the same size as the New York City Borough of Queens. 

Abu Dhabi already has a container port and general cargo port, Mina Zayed. But it’s located in downtown Abu Dhabi, which is convenient for cruise traffic but not much else. “It was not a good use of central downtown space to have a container port there, right in the middle,” Kay says.

The new Khalifa Port is located about 40 km up the coast, halfway between downtown and Dubai’s main port at Jebel Ali. “That really allowed the huge expansion opportunities that really did befit a project of this mega scale,” Kay says.

At Khalifa, planners had essentially unlimited capacity to build in two directions: into the sea for the port itself, and across the desert for the industrial park. The port’s opening capacity is 2.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs)—significantly larger than at Mina Zayed, which in a record year in 2011 moved only 700,000 TEU. While Khalifa is smaller than Dubai’s Jebel Ali port (which has a capacity of 10 million TEU), the difference, says Kay, is that the Dubai port is meant as a transshipment hub for the entire Middle East, while the Khalifa port is a destination port for the UAE only. And Khalifa has the capacity to grow to handle 15 million TEU if market conditions require it. “You’ll remember that quite often in Dubai there was a feeling that infrastructure was being built without necessarily the businesses case being there, completely, for that infrastructure,” says Kay.

The key to staying on schedule was to draw up—two years ago—an exact opening date and to break the project down into 100 milestones, which would, Kay said, “get us to the ultimate milestone at the bottom of the sheet, which was commencement of commercial operations on 1 September.” 

 Another aerial view of the Khalifa Port

When the Khalifa Port opens, it will have an initial capacity of 2.5
million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs)—but that can increase
to up to 15 million TEUs in the future. © ADPC 

Countdown clocks were installed as screen savers. The ADPC and Bechtel took a copy of the plan to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. A month ago the prince came to visit the site and remembered the deadline on the plan; he was impressed the project managers were on target. “On time and in budget doesn’t often happen in this part of the world,” Kay says.

To deliver the 100-step plan, Kay says, Bechtel required “constant engagement” with the client, its subcontractors, and consultants. So they established a series of 100-day “sprints” to make sure the project stayed on track, with measured progress updates—including site visits and office reviews—every 25 days.

The plan was, Kay says, “a decent way to create visibility. Instead of having a 3,000-line schedule with a very complicated critical path, we could just highlight the key, important things, package by package, to make sure everybody in the entire team [was] supportive and focused on achieving those plans.”

A key component of the project was the dredging work required to create the artificial island that the port would rest on. At its peak, according to Douglas, landfill creation required more than 400 22-wheel trailers, 120 bulldozers, 60 wheel loaders, 25 rollers, 25 graders, and 40 water tankers. “Overall, the project team dredged enough material to fill nearly 20,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” he said.

The ADPC and Bechtel also created an elaborate, $240-million environmental breakwater to protect the shipping lane into Khalifa and, more importantly, to protect the Ras Ghanada coral reef. The 8 km coral reef is of “huge environmental significance in the UAE,” Kay said.

Bechtel also deployed a process called silt screening—a giant series of thin filters that block sediments created by the port island construction. The filters, 0.5 m thin, were placed strategically around the work site, and were as close at some points as 300 m from the reef edge. Some were anchored right to the bottom of the sea, rising up from there; others were attached to the seabed by lines that allowed them to be positioned at the water’s surface. Monitoring instruments were set up to detect any sediment passing through; on the basis of that data, analyzed daily, as well as frequent site visits, the screens were moved every week or so. Divers were also sent along the reef to make sure construction work had no impact on it.

The new Khalifa Port is semiautomated; Kay calls it “the most advanced port within 5,000 kilometers,” with 30 automated stacking cranes and 20 shuttle carriers. And it has the capacity for full automation in the future. Currently home to six of the world’s largest ship-to-shore cranes—at 110 ton per crane—the port “can handle the world’s largest container vessels comfortably,” Kay says.

The port is equipped with a battery of security systems and control systems, ranging from closed-circuit television to plate recognition technology that scans incoming trucks as well as both passive and active radio-frequency identification technology that will quickly locate and facilitate the transportation of containers. He describes the control room as something out of the Starship Enterprise, but what makes it possible is 406 km of fiber optic cable, which allows the port to “do the kind of automation we’re talking about.” 

 Aerial view of the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi

 The Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, a massive development
linked to the new port, is being anchored by Emirates Aluminium
Smelter, which should attract other new businesses to the new
industrial zone. © ADPC

The KIZAD is already anchored by Emirates Aluminium Smelter, or EMAL. The smelter is expected to be a catalyst to attract other “downstream” industries, including aluminum extrusion companies and food-processing companies. The smelter features its own dedicated jetty as well as a seawater cooling facility that includes 13 km of 2.6 m diameter pipelines—large enough to drive a Range Rover through.

The smelter is connected to a “hot metal road,” on which metal from the plant can be transported in special hoppers straight to those future downstream industries without the need to cool it down and reheat it later. There’s also a 10 m wide modular path that runs through the entire industrial zone, allowing so-called “out of gauge” goods to be transported to and from the port without going on public roads.

According to Bechtel, some 40 firms have either reserved land or secured long-term lease deals at KIZAD.

“Now that we’ve built the core infrastructure of the main causeways and the bridge to get to terminal one,” Kay says, “it’s a fairly straightforward job just to add the further terminal islands on.”

“The port is dredged to 16 meters so it can already accommodate the largest container ships in the world,” Douglas added. Future phases may dredge to 18 meters to accommodate post-Panamax container vessels. “The port has a bright future,” he said, especially as container traffic transfers from Mina Zayed to Khalifa Port early next year.




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