Atlas Copco-Mafi-Trench: Powering Tomorrow with Highly Specialized Engineering Solutions

The year 2013 marks the 38-year anniversary of Atlas Copco-Mafi-Trench (Mafi-Trench). Mafi-Trench’s parent company, Atlas Copco, has been in business for even longer: an impressive 140 years.

Today, Mafi-Trench is a global leader in the production of expansion turbines, known as expanders. The company covers more than 170 countries worldwide, dealing with some of the largest names in the oil and gas industry from Australia and Saudi Arabia to China. “We’re an international organization that supports a variety of energy-related industries,” explains James Reilly, general manager and president of the board at Mafi-Trench.

Cohesive Collaboration
Reilly leads the Mafi-Trench team at the company’s Santa Maria, Calif., location. “We were established in 1975, but acquired by Atlas Copco in 2007,” recalls Reilly. “In 2007 we were the leading manufacturer of hydrocarbon turbo expanders.”

Atlas Copco dates back to 1873, when the company was founded in Sweden. “Atlas Copco started out by supporting railroad and mining operations, which we still do today,” shares Reilly. “Eventually this led to specialty equipment repair tools.” The company now reaches every corner of the globe with more than 39,000 employees and exceeds over $13 billion (U.S. dollars) in annual revenue.

After 20 years in the Navy as a nuclear submarine commander, Reilly knows what’s involved in fostering the collaborative team spirit needed to run a world-class operation. “We’ve been fortunate to have people running Mafi-Trench who are good leaders,” he details. “We’ve retained talented people and have an excellent company culture, a real friendly, professional one at that. You have to collaborate as a cohesive unit to tackle these challenging projects; it’s not a one-man deal.” This attitude has allowed Mafi-Trench to acquire new projects and clients on a continual basis.

Turbo Power

Among the many areas of the hydrocarbon business, Mafi-Trench equipment specifically assists customers in the production of natural gas. The company’s expander-compressor units are critical to this process.

When natural gas is drawn out of the ground, it needs to be processed to eliminate sand, water, acids and natural gas liquids before it is suitable for pipeline distribution. “Our customers rely on our expander-compressors to chill the natural gas mixture so that the natural gas liquids can be removed,” Reilly says. “These liquids consist of ethane, propane and butane, and have even more value than the resulting clean and dry natural gas [mostly methane] that is transported in pipelines to homes, factories and power plants. These natural gas liquids are mostly used as petrochemical feed stocks to eventually produce plastics and other products. Our turbo expander-compressors are about the size of a 747 jet engine, and cost anywhere between $1 million and $5 million per copy.”

Mafi-Trench builds custom designs for its gas processing plant customers, because each site has to meet specific criteria for the plant output, which is known as the product specification. “Each customer imposes a specific design for their operation,” reveals Reilly. “Natural gas coming out of the ground is different in every single place, so processes and machines have to be uniquely designed for the site. Customers don’t want a machine you can buy off the shelf; they want it to be specialized to get the desired production out of it.”

Mafi-Trench is constantly looking for ways to maximize productivity for clients through expert engineering. “Our expanders support the natural gas processing need for customers worldwide,” adds Reilly. Mafi-Trench deals with industry giants such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as state-owned giants like Saudi Arabian Oil Co., Qatar Petroleum and Statoil. Although the core of Mafi-Trench’s business is in natural gas processing, the company has recently realized other energy recovery opportunities.

Expanding into Energy Recovery

When Mafi-Trench was founded in 1975, geothermal energy was barely on the map. Now it has become a key to the company’s future success, quickly becoming a hot commodity. “We’re involved more and more in energy recovery applications,” details Reilly. “Customers have learned that our expanders are not only useful in natural gas processing, but can also be used to produce electric power from geothermal heat and from unused industrial waste heat. For example, whatever heat that is left over from the fabrication process at a cement plant is normally released into the atmosphere; we’re taking the unused heat and generating electricity.”

Instead of throwing the excess heat into the atmosphere, the energy is captured and converted using a type of power plant known as the Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) and using Mafi-Trench’s expanders to produce anywhere from 2 megawatts to 20 megawatts of electricity. Reilly’s California-based operation works in partnership with Atlas Copco’s Germany plant to research and produce products in the geothermal energy and waste heat recovery realms.

“In Europe, our Germany operations are helping to support ongoing investments in geothermal power in Turkey,” Reilly reveals. “Turkey has many sites of relatively low temperature geothermal heat; our organic rankine cycles and expanders are very well-suited to recover the heat and produce electric power. We split the equipment scope for these projects about 50/50 between our U.S. plant and Germany.”

Reilly admits the demand for geothermal energy and waste heat recovery products depends a lot on government and power utility support for green energy. “You can track the growth in geothermal power and waste heat recovery directly with the availability of investment credits, tax credits, tariffs and other subsidies,” Reilly notes. “For example, there are relatively few geothermal sites in Germany, but there is a very large ongoing effort to exploit these resources due to the tariff of 25 eurocents per kilowatt-hour [over $0.32 USD per kWh] for geothermal power. The subsidies are used to help overcome the high initial investment cost of locating the resource and drilling the wells.”

Mafi-Trench’s North America geothermal projects have started to build over the last year, and more work is in sight for 2013. “We’re supporting a company called U.S. Geothermal Inc. in Boise, Idaho, working with another company called Turbine Air Systems out of Texas,” shares Reilly. “They built a plant using our expander-generators in eastern Oregon and we’re helping them start it up. We’re also in the midst of a Canadian project using our own organic rankine cycle power plant to recovery the waste heat from two gas turbine engines and produce electricity. Once complete, this system will produce around 2 megawatts of clean electric power as opposed to throwing the heat into the air.”

Reilly sees many advantages of the geothermal movement as opposed to other forms of renewable energy such as wind or solar power. “Over the long run, it makes sense,” he stresses. “It runs night or day, wind or shine, from the heat energy created inside of the Earth, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year without burning any fuel or creating any global warming gases. It is the only form of renewable energy today that can make this claim.” Atlas Copco-Mafi-Trench continues to build on the solid foundation of Atlas Copco by creating innovative engineering solutions to power tomorrow’s world.