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Teen inventor combats kudzu menace

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Meet the 'Kudzu Kid'
  • Seventeen-year-old Jacob Schindler uses a modified drill to kill the roots of invasive plant
  • Kudzu estimated to cover over seven million acres of land in United States, say USDA
  • Injecting helium at the root kills kudzu without harming nearby plants, Schindler says

Atlanta (CNN) -- Jacob Schindler is not your typical American teenager.

He spends his days battling kudzu, an invasive plant that has overrun millions of acres of land throughout the Southeastern United States.

Kudzu, native to Asia, was first brought to the United States during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. In the 1930s and 40s, more than 1.2 million acres of kudzu was planted as a means of erosion control by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.

"The (United States Department for Agriculture) would actually pay farmers to grow it around their crops, to prevent erosion," Schindler said.

But in 1998, kudzu was listed by the U.S. Congress as a "Federal Noxious Weed" and is estimated to cover over seven million acres of land in the U.S.

When I first heard about Jacob's ideas, I was a little skeptical. But the more I thought about it, I realized it could have some merit
--Stephen Enloe, Auburn University

For his sixth grade science project, Schindler -- now 17 years old -- came up with the idea of planting kudzu on Mars.

"We breathe in oxygen, we breathe out CO2, and plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. I started asking what would make it impossible to grow kudzu on Mars," he said.

Experimenting with different gasses led him to find that helium killed the kudzu but without harming the other plants around it.

Kudzu bugs stink up Georgia

"At this point it was still very much, let's grow kudzu on Mars," Schindler said. "But what it really became is: How can I eliminate kudzu in an environmentally-friendly way?"

He came up with a modified drill shaft that hooks up to a helium tank.

"I drill the actual device into the ground which allows me to have something underground to disperse the helium with," he explained.

His mom, Julie has helped him apply for a patent on the device and his methodology.

Stephen Enloe, assistant professor of agronomy at Auburn University agrees that Jacob's approach is truly a novel one. He has been working with Schindler junior on a research grant sponsored by the Weed Science Society of America.

"When I first heard about Jacob's ideas, I was a little skeptical. But the more I thought about it, I realized it could have some merit. Kudzu has large tubers and if the helium is choking out the oxygen, it could be suffocating them," Enloe said.

He and Schindler have been recreating the initial kudzu experiments in a laboratory.

They expect to have some initial results soon.

In the meantime, Schindler has been testing out using kudzu as an alternative food source for Georgia's Governor's Honor Program -- a summer education project for talented high school students in the state.

"The roots are a starch; it can be used as wine, salads, cakes and kudzu salsa. I'm interested in getting kudzu off the weed list and back on the plant list. It has many uses," he said.

A 2005 study by Harvard Medical School found that a compound made from kudzu could help reduce alcohol cravings.

"Hopefully I've developed my future career," Schindler said. "If not, I've learned a lot of life skills: research, public speaking, making connections. It's opened a lot of doors for me. Otherwise, I would probably be home this summer, just washing the truck."


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