Improving the Efficiency of the Hidrovía

by Teresa Acklin
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Pneumatic unloading at river barge terminals in South America could reduce transportation costs.

By Chris J. Brand

   Grain producers, traders, market- ers and buyers know that, as a general rule of thumb, transportation costs per tonne decrease as the vessel or vehicle's cargo size increases. In other words, transportation of grain is less costly by cape-size ocean vessel than river barge, and river barge is less costly than transporting by truck.

   In global grain logistics, the aim is a perfect balance of transportation methods that weighs functionality and feasibility against cost.

   The Hidrovía is a developing river system in South America, most noticeably in Argentina, for transporting agro-products using river barges and ocean-going vessels. The Hidrovía could be compared to the Mississippi River system, which runs directly through the grain producing areas of the United States.

   There are several major grain terminals located along the Hidrovía that have impressive storage facilities and process millions of tonnes of grain annually. These down-river terminals are actually located hundreds of miles inland from the river mouth — closer to the grain producers. At present, these export terminals can accommodate and load grain onto ocean vessels for export.

   Ocean vessels are able to travel from the river mouth to these terminals without passing through locks and dams. Impressively, many major grain terminals on the Parana River in Argentina can even accommodate Panamax- and cape-size vessels.

   Other rivers in South America have similar capabilities, including the Uruguay River in Uruguay and Paraguay, the Orinoco River in north Brazil and the Rio Negro River in central Brazil. By loading larger transport vessels closer to the producer, grain from these regions can be more competitively priced in the world market.

   These down-river export terminals currently receive the majority of grain by truck. In fact, 80% of grain in Argentina is still transported by truck (see World Grain, June 1999).

   Greater efficiencies can be achieved by transporting a larger portion of the grain produced up-river to the export terminals down-river by barge rather than truck. It is estimated that as much as 50% of the “producer to major export terminal” freight cost could be eliminated with the use of an efficient barge system.

   The practice of receiving grain at major terminals by truck continues because the infrastructure to receive grain by barge is underdeveloped in South America. In order for a river barge system to function, the infrastructure must be in place. There must be a good supply of barges and tugs available so that freight rates are competitive. The export terminals discharging barges down-river also must be equipped with efficient and effective unloading systems.


   There are two primary methods of discharging barges – pneumatic unloading, which is the most efficient and effective method, and crane and clamshell unloading, which is widely accepted but a less efficient and effective method.

   Pneumatic unloading systems are superior to crane and clamshell for several reasons.

   Discharging at the bottom of the barge and clean-up. River barges have relatively shallow and narrow cargo areas that allow them to travel in shallow river ways. Therefore, a substantial amount of time is required to clean off the bottom of the barge.

   A pneumatic system can literally suck grain off the floor of the barge, while a crane and clamshell system requires approximately 25% more time to clean up the bottom portion of the barge. Clamshells can also collide with the bottom and sides of a barge, which can be expensive to repair.

   Shrinkage and dust. Shrinkage and dust are virtually eliminated from the barge discharge operation when using a pneumatic system. Most high-quality, modern pneumatic unloading systems utilize a filter receiver or filter bags to contain the dust in a closed loop system, which eliminates dust and shrinkage.

   With a crane and clamshell system, spillage and shrinkage of grain can be very high. Clamshells pick up a batch at a time, and grain is normally spilled as the clamshell passes from the barge to the receiving hopper. Also, when the clamshell dumps the batch, dust flies up and out of the receiving hopper, creating filth and shrinkage.

   Discharge capacity. The capacity of a pneumatic discharge system is less dependent on the operator. A pneumatic system provides continuous and constant discharging. As long as the nozzle is kept in the grain, the capacity should not vary substantially.

   With a crane and clamshell system, capacity is solely dependent on the skill level of the operator.

   Civil works, operating and maintenance costs. Pneumatic barge unloading systems generally do not require a large platform from which to operate. In order to provide the greatest reach into the hold of the barge, these systems generally have a swiveling control cabin (up to 360o) and telescoping intake piping. Maintenance and operating costs in a pneumatic system are very low.

   Before a crane and clamshell system is installed, expensive marine piling and civil works are required to place a platform large enough to accommodate the system. A crane placed on a platform in the middle of a river can be difficult to access and maintain.

   Investment level. The investment level of a portable pneumatic unloader is about one-third of that of a crane and clam system of the same capacity.

   By comparing the cost advantages of transporting grain by barge rather than truck, and by choosing a barge discharging method wisely by installing a high quality pneumatic discharging system, river terminals in South America along the Hidrovía can further increase their competitive advantage in the world grain market.

   Chris J. Brand is international sales manager for Christianson Systems, Inc., Blomkest, Minnesota, U.S., a full-service supplier of pneumatic ship and barge unloaders specializing in grain handling. He can be reached at