It's still too soon to say whether Fishbones succeeds in the market. Although it was founded eight years ago, the company is only now beginning to commercialize its technology, having installed two pilot systems in 2013 (in Indonesia) and 2014 (the Austin Chalk project). But some who study the fracking industry think Fishbones' approach shows promise.
"You can be hitting natural fracture systems that don't interact with the well bore. It's exactly the thing that we need in the extraction industry these days to strategically access resources," said John McLennan, an associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Utah. "You're focusing your efforts; you're not overusing your treatment fluids. Ultimately, something like this could be successful."
Spears said that in the U.S. and Canadian shale plays, the companies are using what amounts to "a very large sledgehammer" on a big frack job.
"You need to move a lot of rock and crack a lot of rocks open a thousand feet away from the well bore," he said. "The approach to these big frack jobs is not appropriate for big lush reservoirs that something a little more precise might address," Spears added.
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Fishbones' approach to the natural fractures and permeability in rock is attempting to do something fundamentally different than what the industry does, Spears said, and even though the oil and gas business is a high-risk one, these kinds of innovations can take a lot of time to be embraced, if ever.
"We're not saying forget hydraulic fracturing," Rice said. "But we have a specific niche in the market where we fit well. … And we have a unique way to tap into that market."
"This is an industry that, even though it's made up of gamblers, we aren't gamblers. We do something once and wait a year to see how it worked out," Spears said, adding, "There will be some market for it. I just can't tell how big that might be."
—By Andrew Zaleski, special to CNBC.com