GUPC, the consortium building the new Panama Canal locks, said that in the next two months it would conduct more than 2,000 trials in the Pacific and Caribbean sectors of the expanded waterway, focusing on gates, valves, electric power and control systems.

Some systems are already being operated from the control towers and the buildings where machines are located "are almost finished," Jose Pelaez, GUPC's project director, said.

"This new inter-oceanic canal has achieved almost every major client requirement, such as timing for opening and closing the gates, time to fill locks, seal capacities and others," GUPC said in a statement.

At the end of the trial period, called by GUPC "an essential part of the project's optimization," there will be navigation tests during the second week of May with a vessel leased by the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP.

The navigation trials will be the last tests before handing over the project to the ACP, which expects to open the waterway for operations during the second half of this year.

The expansion will allow the transit of 2.6 times more cargo and "will open unlimited opportunities and new markets," such as the transport of liquefied natural gas, Pelaez told EFE.

The 80-kilometer (50-mile) canal, which was under U.S. control from 1904 until Dec. 31, 1999, currently handles nearly 6 percent of global trade.

Administrators launched the expansion project, including construction of a third set of locks that will enable the waterway to accommodate "post-Panamax" ships, in 2007.

Those modern ships - used by the energy, and particularly the liquefied natural gas industry - hold up to 12,000 20-foot-long containers and are three times bigger than what the canal can currently handle.

With the new set of locks, the canal will be able to handle up to 600 million tons of cargo annually, double its current capacity. EFE