Catalyst Energy Services is a new company with innovative technology that might shake up the hydraulic fracturing sector. Based in Midland, Texas, Catalyst designs and manufactures hydraulic fracturing equipment which it uses to support its hydraulic fracturing services. Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking or fracing, involves injecting liquids into shale or sand formations to break them and release more oil and natural gas.
The company’s latest product, the cutting-edge VortexPrime™ system, offers high-powered pumping, a small footprint, low operating costs, reduced emissions, and ease of use. “VortexPrime™ is a technology that we say checks all the boxes,” states Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Seth Moore.
Released earlier this year, VortexPrime™ is the first frac fleet of its kind to use direct-drive turbine technology. The term “frac fleet” is industry lingo for the equipment used in hydraulic fracturing such as trucks, pumps, mixing equipment, manifolds and vehicles.
VortexPrime™ offers power and efficiency in a single package. Moore measures efficiency in terms of fuel consumption and human capital— the number of workers required to transport, install, operate, maintain then dismantle a hydraulic fracturing system.
This revolutionary solution can be directly attributed to Catalyst’s spirit of innovation and open-mindedness. The company was officially founded on April 23, 2018, by Moore, Chief Executive Officer Bobby Chapman and Chief Financial Officer Mike Morgan. From the start, the co-founders aimed to do things differently in a traditionally conservative industry.
“When we came up with the idea for the company, we had a blank canvas. We could kind of do what we wanted to. We searched out a lot of different technologies and possibilities,” he recalls of the company’s early days.
At first, the company used conventional Tier-4 final diesel-powered hydraulic fracturing systems to serve clients. However, the desire to break the mold remained strong. Out of this came an idea: why not couple a military-grade turbine powered by natural gas directly to a pump? Other companies have tried to develop similar systems, but Catalyst was determined to take the lead on this concept.
“We partnered with some great people, sat down with whiteboards and markers and designed the VortexPrime™ from the ground up. It wasn’t something we purchased off the shelf. It wasn’t something that we gave to an equipment design company to go build for us. It was something built by us and the partners we contracted with,” says Moore, with a touch of pride.
Creative as they were, the development team was also cautious. A VortexPrime™ prototype was built and put through extensive field tests to see if it fulfilled expectations. Only after testing was complete did the company create a final version which was released commercially in February of this year.
VortexPrime™ generates plenty of horsepower but is also “very agile. We can move it. This equipment moves every two to five weeks, so you need a fleet that can be set up and taken down in a relatively short time frame,” states Moore.
He stresses again that most of the work on this solution was done in-house. “We manufacture it ourselves. We have a manufacturing center in Odessa, Texas where we build these units.”
The fully-self-contained VortexPrime™ solution is compact, requiring eight frac pumps, versus twenty on conventional frac fleets, and offers up to twenty-percent-reduced systems cost compared with a conventional system. VortexPrime™ requires less maintenance, produces up to forty percent fewer CO2 greenhouse gas emissions than conventional Tier-4 fracturing fleets and can be set up in hours rather than days, as with a traditional fleet.
There are fewer pieces to haul, and fewer trips back and forth from the worksite are required. The system can reach a maximum treating pressure of 11,900 psi with an average treating pressure of 9,210 psi and a maximum treating rate of 120 barrels per minute, with an average treating rate of 95 barrels per minute. Using VortexPrime™ also results in a “ninety-plus percent reduction in waste stream,” adds Moore.
Other benefits include a kill switch feature that drastically limits idle time—it takes roughly five minutes to get the system back online compared with potentially hours for conventional frac fleets—automated software, and the ability to access small, remote locales.
While it is a revolutionary product, VortexPrime™ is not currently available for sale; instead, the system, along with Catalyst crews, can be rented out on an hourly basis. Using VortexPrime™ or convention diesel equipment, the company performs hydraulic fracturing for clients.
“We’re focused on providing a service. We charge typically by the hour. The customer is not buying the VortexPrime™. They are renting our service, and we use the VortexPrime™ to complete that service,” Moore explains.
The company has kicked around the idea of producing VortexPrime™ frac fleets that customers could purchase for themselves but has not pursued the notion yet. Among other things, COVID-related supply chain woes have made Catalyst a bit wary about moving into large-scale manufacturing for the hydraulic fracturing marketplace.
“The global pandemic really upset the supply chain… We had a case a while back, where we needed a water pump for a diesel engine. That water pump took us almost 120 days to get. We had this very expensive unit waiting on a very inexpensive water pump… That’s been a challenge, being able to keep things running at a time when the supply chain has been so stressed,” Moore says.
Content to remain a technology company and service provider, for the time being, Catalyst is also firmly focused on the Permian Basin. Located in Southeast New Mexico and West Texas, the Permian Basin contains vast oil and gas deposits. Catalyst has worked on projects in other places but finds there is “so much growth potential for us here, we’re not actively marketing outside the Permian Basin. We see a lot of opportunity within our backyard,” he states.
Indeed, there is so much opportunity that Catalyst has been growing at an explosive clip. From roughly 110 employees this time last year, it now employs between 175 and 180 people. Employee benefits include dental, vision, and major medical insurance, 401(k) savings plans, paid holidays and vacations, competitive salaries, an Employment Assistance Program, and more.
“I think the VortexPrime™ has driven our growth. I think the market has driven it too. There’s an old saying that a rising tide lifts all boats,” notes Moore.
Anyone interested in joining needs to meet some high standards. The firm wants new hires who demonstrate “a desire for excellence. We also like people who are competitive, who hate to lose. These are intangibles. People can have experience, and we value experience, but it goes much beyond that. You want people to share in a vision of greatness, a vision of innovation,” he says.
It also values hardworking people who can focus on routine tasks. Transporting, installing, operating, then dismantling hydraulic fracturing fleets requires close attention to detail and consistent results. Catalyst aims to always provide top-notch service, including maintenance and troubleshooting.
Employees undergo rigorous safety training and receive regular safety updates. This makes sense, given that the firm specializes in equipment that extracts oil and natural gas. Having said that, “the most dangerous thing we do is drive. We move a lot of equipment,” notes Moore.
VortexPrime™ is not the only alternative fracking solution on the market. Electric-powered fleets or e-frac, are another contender. These use electric-powered pumps rather than diesel-powered ones. Not hugely common at present, e-frac systems do offer certain benefits; according to Drilling Contractor magazine, e-fracking drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption.
Environmental benefits aside, e-fracturing has its disadvantages, says Moore. Simply plugging an e-frac system into an electrical grid is not a practical option for large-scale hydraulic fracturing, he says. The resulting power draw would cause strain on any grid and would pose a particular challenge in Texas, which has an independent electrical grid that is not connected to grids in other states. Onsite generators can produce electricity for e-frac systems, but they are expensive and such equipment adds more steps to the hydraulic fracturing process.
Given Catalyst’s rapid growth and the launch of the VortexPrime™ frac fleet, it is not a surprise that Moore is bullish about the future. “We’re excited about the industry. We’re excited about the direction we’re headed, and we’re excited about the role we play. We are a small player and have to try hard. We look forward to continuing to grow,” he states.
He makes it clear, however, that Catalyst has no intention of resting on its laurels and relying solely on VortexPrime™ to build revenue. “We’re going to continue to innovate. This isn’t the last cool technology that Catalyst is going to release. We’re going to do other things.”