Around April, Jay Forbes decided to reinvent his business by inventing something new.
It was a case of necessity birthing innovation, as his company and employees had fallen on hard times.
“Things, everything, crashed here last October real bad,” said Forbes, owner of Forbes Certified Welding in Craig, which had until then crafted a solid business off building pipeline components and truck beds for the energy industry.
“I had 12 employees, full-time, when I laid everyone off in January,” he said. “It went downhill fast.”
Nearly every day, unemployed men and women come into his office looking for work only to find none, Forbes added.
“It’s terrible out there,” he said.
One night this spring, as Forbes sat at his dinner table mulling the future of his business and how to put people back to work, his mind settled on one idea.
Hydraulic fracturing fluid.
Specific, and yet so far fortuitous.
Forbes and a team of part-time employees and volunteers have built a machine that may change the way energy companies drill new wells.
Oil and gas wells produce large amounts of water along with fossil fuels. The water cannot be used for anything, as it often is contaminated with oil, gas, salt and other chemicals and must be shipped to recycling facilities to separate out the junk.
At the same time, companies need salt water to mix with other chemicals to make fracturing fluid, which is pumped into wells to fracture underground rock formations and make it easier to pull more oil or gas out of the ground.
Forbes’ machine takes the original production water and filters out almost all of the hydrocarbons and chemicals but leaves the salt.
In an industrial application, this would mean companies could use it on-site at a new well to turn production water into fracturing fluid without trucking everything out and back in again.
It also might help the companies clean harmful, unnecessary chemicals out of the fluid they put back into the ground.
“I’m not a chemical engineer,” Forbes said. “I’m a welder, but I got tired of people who came in here looking for a job. Everyone said they got laid off, that it was a production water issue. I sat down and thought, ‘Well, I can do something about that.’”
So, at his dinner table, Forbes took a newspaper and wrote out his machine’s basic chemical formula in the margins.
“All these chemicals and gases, it’s something that as a welder you have to know,” Forbes said. “It’s the difference between getting hurt and not getting hurt. If you don’t know what you’re doing, something might just blow up in your face.”
He said everyone laughed at him at first, until he built a small prototype that worked on the first try.
After that, he hired back four employees and went to work with them and a team of volunteers.
“People have been coming in and working for free just for the promise of work later,” said Monique, Forbes’ wife. “Things are that tough.”
By August, they had built a full-scale model that can churn out 6,000 barrels of water a day, equal to 252,000 gallons.
Forbes said he doesn’t know why no one else came up with the same idea first, but he knows that companies have sunk years of work and millions of dollars into finding the same solution.
Still, getting companies to buy in has not been easy.
In some cases, the hesitation is out of disbelief.
“I don’t think they can wrap their brain around the fact that this can be done,” said Scott Heizer, who has worked on the project since its inception. “Industry has been trying to do this for years and never had it work. We brought a chemist out here to show him, and he stood there and watched it work and still said, ‘That’s not possible.’”
Money also seems to be tight everywhere, Forbes said.
“Everybody we’ve talked to has just said we have to wait until after the first of the year,” he said. “Their budgets are spent for this year.”
In the meantime, keeping the machine under wraps until the crew can finalize a patent has been a bizarre experience, they said.
“It’s almost comical,” Forbes said. “Sometimes I sleep. Sometimes I don’t.”
In the past few months, Forbes and his employees said they’ve seen people drive by with photography equipment and video cameras, and helicopters have circled his lot with unusual frequency.
There’s not much to do but watch them, Forbes said.
So, he and his crew sit, “twiddling our thumbs,” waiting for any new word.
But he promises if the machine is marketable, it won’t just be his business that reaps the benefits.
“At the time, we sunk everything we had into this just to see if it would work,” Forbes said. “It’s been very stressful because to this day, we still don’t know exactly what we have. If it’s what we think it is, it could be huge.
“We’ll need people to build them and operate them. Our vendors like Craig Steel and Tri-State Supplies and United Supply, we’ll need them. This is a for Craig deal. It’s for everybody, just to see if we can’t get back to work.”