Atlas Energy’s Dune Express Proppant Conveyor Rolling Into the Permian Basin

The first long-haul overland conveyor system to deliver proppant is under construction in the Permian Basin.

Dune Express overland conveyor belt
Atlas Energy Solutions' Dune Express overland conveyor belt is designed with above-ground highway crossings with a clearance of 25 ft to help eliminate the risk of bridge strikes where the belt crosses public highways.

The checkout line in a grocery store is the only exposure many people may have to a conveyor belt. That is about to change for those living in the Permian Basin of west Texas and New Mexico.

Atlas Energy Solutions is building the Dune Express, the area’s first long-haul overland proppant conveyor system, to optimize delivery from the company’s sand mine in Kermit, Texas, to the northern Delaware Basin in New Mexico.

Atlas sees the conveyor belt approach as the solution to the long-time challenge of delivering frac sand the last mile to the wellsite. Proppant is traditionally delivered by pneumatic or belly-dump trucks, beginning at a loading facility or mine and ending at the wellsite, where it is moved into storage silos until it is needed for a fracturing job.

The Austin, Texas-based oilfield services company broke ground on the $400 million project in March after more than 5 years of planning. The covered, all-electric, 42-mile-long conveyor system is expected to deliver 13 million tons of proppant annually.

“Starting back to 2017, when we started to kick off construction of our first silos, our efforts towards solving the massive logistical challenge of moving proppant around rural areas were top of mind. We had taken the view then that sand demand in the Permian would grow for years, creating a strain on local logistics and infrastructure,” said John Turner, president, and chief financial officer for Atlas Energy Solutions. “From our experiences as former operators, we knew what was coming.”

He highlighted how pipelines replaced trucks to haul oil and water from the wellsites. The Dune Express does something similar in carrying sand from the mine to a point closer to the shale factory floor that is the Delaware Basin.

The company offers proppant in 40/70 and 100 mesh sizes that will be shipped out on the conveyor belt in batches, depending on the client’s orders.

“It’s a relatively straightforward process. Say we have several orders for 100 mesh; then we’ll load it up on the belt and send it. At some point, we get an order for 40/70, then we’ll load it up and send it,” said Turner.

He added that the company continues investing in technologies to automate the process.

“As we develop our technology platforms that will roll out with the infrastructure, we’re going to be able to handle that process efficiently,” he said.

Keeping the proppant on the belt as it moved was a challenge that Turner said they spent considerable time addressing. There is rarely a day of rest for the Permian Basin winds.

Turner said that the project team tested the stand and conveyor in a wind tunnel to develop a design where the proppant would stay on the belt.

“The first 2 or 3 days of testing didn't go too well. We filled that wind tunnel full of sand, but we finally landed on a design that ensured we did not lose sand. We also drove a mock-up of the system to Washington state and tested it in front of a jet engine with water to simulate sideways rain. The sand stayed dry. It is a proprietary design that keeps the elements out and the sand in.”

Storage, Loadout, and Fewer Trucks
The overland conveyor belt is the system’s centerpiece as it will increase proppant delivery efficiency while reducing truck emissions and traffic on public roads. The system also includes about 85,000 tons of dry storage tied to two permanent proppant loadouts. These facilities are strategically located to enable shorter hauls of proppant to wellsites.

The State Line Loadout facility, located 26 miles from Kermit and on the Texas state line, features two 2,000-ton storage silos that are remotely operated from Austin and capable of loading fit-for-purpose double trailers able to haul 70 tons—35 tons in each trailer—of proppant at one time.

The End of Line Loadout facility in Lea County, New Mexico, has 30,000 tons of storage. If needed, the system will also feature flexible mobile loadout facilities to shorten proppant transportation to wellsites.

The conveyor belt is designed with above-ground highway crossings with a clearance of 25 ft to help eliminate the risk of bridge strikes where the conveyor belt crosses public highways. Lease road crossings are engineered to allow the safe flow of oilfield traffic.

The Dune Express is expected to take thousands of trucks off public roads, avoiding traffic accidents and associated fatalities in the region while significantly reducing the emissions footprint of sand delivery in the Permian.

“The Dune Express delivers the proppant to a standard location, taking trucks off the public roads. It will make it safer for the folks that live and work out there,” said Turner. “Reducing the total number of trucks on the public roads is an overall benefit and helps make the Permian a better place to live.”

The Dune Express system is expected to go into service at the end of 2024. Atlas announced in December 2022 that it had signed multiyear agreements to supply proppant to two major oil companies via the system.