University of Georgia
April 2016
The kudzu kid

Though initially popular, kudzu was branded a weed in the 1970s for its ability to smother trees, plants and even houses in any landscape. (Peter Frey/University of Georgia)

The kudzu kid

UGA student’s patent takes on the vine that ate the South.

While other kids in Lake Park were collecting “Star Wars” figurines, Jacob Schindler was trying to figure out how to colonize Mars. For a middle school science fair project, he wanted to use kudzu to terraform the Red Planet and make it livable. Kudzu was an obvious choice; it was everywhere in South Georgia’s Lowndes County, where he grew up, and seemed to be virtually indestructible. If it could take over whole sections of Earth’s landscape, why not Mars?

His sixth-grade teacher, Cyndi Harrell, told Jacob that sending humans to Mars to plant kudzu wasn’t likely to happen in time for the science fair, so Jacob shelved the space travel idea but kept his focus on kudzu. For the school’s science fair, he designed an experiment to expose kudzu plants to Martian gases — helium, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen — to learn if kudzu could survive in that planet’s atmosphere.

That first living room experiment had the potential for disaster. Schindler hadn’t properly sealed the canisters of nitrous oxide, oxygen and carbon dioxide, and a stray static spark could have led to an explosion. Luckily, the only spark was in his imagination. The project led him to more ideas, more entries into various fairs and conventions and a commitment to continuing his investigation.

Now a senior at UGA, Schindler is studying landscape architecture and continuing his work with kudzu while benefitting from the world-class learning environment the university provides. In 2014, 10 years after he began his research, Schindler received a patent for a device that can eradicate kudzu without harming neighboring plants.

The ‘miracle vine’

Kudzu first appeared in the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, brought in by Japanese exhibitors who built a garden including a variety of plants. Americans loved kudzu’s big leaves and fragrant blossoms and began using it as an ornamental in their home gardens. Nurseries sold the plant for animal forage; one in Florida sold kudzu through the mail. In the 1930s, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service began touting kudzu for its ability to stop soil erosion. Workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps planted hundreds of acres of kudzu during the Great Depression, and farmers were paid $8 for every acre they planted. Throughout the 1940s, Channing Cope, an Atlanta radio personality and farm editor for the Atlanta Constitution, extolled the virtues of kudzu and traveled through the Southeast starting kudzu clubs to honor what he called “the miracle vine.”

But the fast-growing vine soon became a nuisance, and the federal government removed it from its list of recommended ground cover plants in 1953. Two decades later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture branded it a weed. The problem with kudzu is that it smothers the trees and other plants in any landscape in which it takes hold. It can grow as high as 100 feet, and the tap root can snuggle into the ground up to 12 feet deep and weigh as much as 200 pounds. Vines that touch the ground can eventually root there, and older vines can be up to 4 inches thick. James Miller, a USDA Forest Service research ecologist emeritus in Auburn, Ala., has estimated that power companies spend about $1.5 million annually fighting kudzu.

Humming happily during drought, tinged only slightly from frost, kudzu today covers an estimated 7.5 million acres, mostly in the South.

Shifting focus

As a kid, Schindler says he was shy and had different interests from most of his peers, as well as a visual processing disorder that kept him from playing sports. His parents enrolled him at a martial arts academy where the instructor was James Corbett (BSA ’88, MEd ’91, EdS ’92), who would become his adviser for Future Farmers of America — an integral part of his education.

“FFA was my bread and butter, where I learned public speaking and made friends, starting in middle school,” Schindler says. Corbett, an agricultural education teacher at Lowndes High School, “taught me the scientific method, which I need for my projects. The FFA got me through high school.”

As he was preparing to graduate from high school, Schindler was contacted by landscape architects in Winston-Salem, N.C., for a kudzu eradication. It was an introduction to a profession he hadn’t known existed. It didn’t change his college plans — he’d applied to UGA for its excellent agricultural programs — but it shifted his focus to the College of Environment and Design (CED) and a degree in landscape architecture.

Pratt Cassity met Schindler when he enrolled in Cassity’s freshman seminar.

“[He has] such a sharp mind, he astounds me,” says Cassity, director of public service and outreach for CED’s Center for Community Design and Preservation. “You rarely see students in high school [applying for] patents. I can see him researching human-sensitive and Earth-sensitive design options in the future.”

Having perhaps solved the problem of stopping kudzu from achieving world domination, Schindler recently has been wondering about its potential benefits. He’s learned that people in Japan and China grind the root for use as a starch substitute in baked goods and dry the leaves for tea. There may even be medicinal uses for kudzu; researchers are exploring a drug extracted from kudzu root that may help in the treatment of alcoholism. Maybe, just maybe, Schindler has come to believe, kudzu isn’t the foot-a-day green monster most people think it is.

“Maybe invasives aren’t as bad as everyone thinks,” he says. “Maybe we can get some use out of them if we can just control them.”

KEHTA = Bye-bye kudzu

When Schindler’s not doing projects for his landscape architecture courses — he graduates in May — his attention is focused on the KEHTA, his patented Kudzu Eradicating Helium Technology Apparatus, that delivers helium into the soil where the plant grows.

The KEHTA looks innocuous, like something you might use with a welding mask. It’s a few feet of hollow stainless steel pipe with a drill bit on one end, a series of holes along the length of the pipe, and a T connector and valve at the other end for attaching to a helium tank. During an eradication mission, Schindler uses a power drill to insert the drill bit into soil adjacent to the root and opens the valve, saturating the soil with helium. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and may need to be repeated in larger areas to assure coverage. After a few weeks, the result is dead kudzu. He’s had successful kudzu-killing projects in Decatur, Lowndes County and Madison, Fla.

The best part for Schindler? The KEHTA eradicates without involving any hazardous chemicals. There’s no drift, no chance of neighboring plants dying along with the kudzu. There’s just harmless helium. In fact, one of his experiments showed that loblolly pines exposed to helium grew faster than trees that weren’t exposed.

Schindler may have created the environmentally friendly kudzu killer that people in the South have been wanting for decades, and a multinational agricultural company is talking with him about manufacturing and marketing the device.

Corbett likes to tell a story about the 2013 FFA nationals, where Schindler was named an American Star in Agriscience for his kudzu project. A friendly guy approached Schindler and his mom and asked the teenager whether he had a research paper on his project. His teacher jumped into the conversation and said no, there was no paper. He feared the stranger would take Schindler’s ideas and capitalize on them.

“I told Jacob he had to get a patent on his device because we didn’t want someone profiting from what he had done,” Corbett says. “He worked too hard for that to happen.”

— Rebecca McCarthy, Georgia Magazine, March 2016