Catacel, Here to Stay, Heats Up Advanced Energy
RAVENNA, Ohio -- Fourteen years ago, Bill Whittenberger watched as his employer in Hiram packed up and moved to Alabama. Whittenberger and several of his co-workers, all from the area, weren’t sure what they’d do next. But they knew one thing – they were staying put.Today Whittenberger walks the floor of the company he co-founded, the
Catacel Corp. in Ravenna. The day is winding down but several employees remain intent as they perform very different tasks. Each part of the process is precise. These workers are making high-performance, heat-exchanging structured catalysts used in hydrogen production, fuel cell and advanced energy applications. And they’re doing it piece by piece.
“We do a lot of the work by hand right now,” explains David Becker, vice president of operations and manufacturing. “Catacel’s core competence is the ability to put catalytic materials on very thin metal and have it stay there and perform for a long life at very high temperatures.”
“Our biggest customer makes fuel cells that are up in the hundred-kilowatt range and these are used primarily as backup power for companies like Google and eBay and people that run a lot of computers,” says Whittenberger, president of Catacel.
Catacel’s sales have been growing at an extraordinary pace since its inception in 2001. Whittenberger reports $2 million in sales in 2012 and $3 million last year. And he says they’re on target to bring in $5 million this year.
The process starts with a coil of high-temperature paper-thin stainless steel alloy foil. A coating is applied that contains a catalyst selected for a specific reaction, such as re-forming natural gas into a hydrogen-rich syngas or synthesis gas.
Depending on the customer’s needs, the coated foil is then formed into different shapes and placed into a variety of vessels. One looks like a mini-submarine you can hold in your hand. Another looks like a small radiator and is used mostly for research at universities and in other laboratories. Inside the vessels, gases can move through various channels to produce the intended reaction. Becker says the component consumes fewer resources and allows for a more compact design of the final fuel cell.
“It enables companies that build those systems to achieve higher efficiency and that is environmentally attractive from a usage and carbon emissions standpoint,” he says.
“We sell very little in Ohio. Probably 40% of our business is in the U.S.,” Whittenberger explains. “The rest of it is international.”
Catacel sells its products in Europe, Turkey, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Japan and Brazil.
You could say, however, it all started in East Palestine. That’s where Whittenberger grew up before heading off to The Ohio State University to earn his baccalaureate in mechanical engineering.
He was back in the area working for another company in Portage County when it relocated to the South. That’s when he and two others formed Catacel.
“We wanted to do something with catalysts on thin metal foils. That was our history and background,” Whittenberger recounts.
Their first product landed them a contract with a company in Switzerland. But the entrepreneurs quickly moved on to something else that created a lot of buzz at the time – fuel cells.
“We said, ‘What’s a fuel cell?’” Whittenberger laughs. “And we started learning about that and talking to fuel cell customers. Now the fuel cell market is 70% to 80% of our business.”
While some countries such as Japan use fuel cells for residential energy, he explains, it’s not that common. Nor he says has it expanded much into fueling automobiles yet, except perhaps on the West Coast.
“I don’t know that it [the fuel cell industry] is going to be the Holy Grail. It’s going to grow. It’s growing now at 30% a year. It’s going to do that for 10 years I would guess,” he says.
“In the U.S. there are these niche applications where they want clean power,” Whittenberger continues. “They want local power … and those things will flourish with fuel cells.”
Whittenberger says Catacel has “pretty much” penetrated the fuel cell space and will continue to serve those customers and help the business grow. But the company is also growing in another direction – catalysts for hydrogen production in refineries, food oils, processing plants, steel mills, fertilizer and methanol plants.
Catacel’s patented Stackable Structural Reactor (SSR) delivers up to a 30% increase in heat transfer in industrial hydrogen re-formers. This results in reduced fuel consumption.
“We expect that’s going to be a bigger part of the business as we move down the road,” remarks Whittenberger.
Another potential area of growth: The company is one of several entities working on a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a technology that separates carbon dioxide from power plant emissions so it doesn’t get into the atmosphere.
And there is plenty of room to grow at its new location on North Freedom Street in Ravenna. The company moved here in September from its former space that its employees refer to affectionately as “the barn.”
Catacel now sits on a campus with several other buildings purchased by a major shareholder in the company. About 23,000 square feet are in use. With 80,000 square feet available, there’s room to more than triple that space. The company also expects to add to its workforce of 30 and hire up to six more employees this year.
“This is the kind of growth and value, and the kind of success story that’s just fantastic,” remarks Jerry Frantz, managing venture partner at JumpStart Inc. He spoke at the company’s open house in November.
“It’s the kind of thing investors notice and customers notice that really creates tremendous opportunities,” he says.
JumpStart invested two big sums of money in Catacel, the first, $250,000 in 2009. The company has also received several grants from Ohio’s Third Frontier program.
Whittenberger is steadfast that he and Catacel are in the area for the long haul. In fact, it’s become a family affair with his son Joe on the payroll and handling all of the information technology work.
And Whittenberger says he won’t ever forget that day so many years
ago when he and his co-workers watched all that equipment leave for Alabama.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘What do we do now? Let’s start a business.’ And we did. And we’re all here to stay. We’re not going anywhere.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in MidMarch edition of The Business Journal as part of our year-long focus on Trending: TechBelt.
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