Boy has a crude solution for oil slick: chicken droppings

Staff WriterJune 3, 2010 

Hey, BP, as you look for ways to clean up the oil slick in the Gulf Coast, you might want to talk to fifth-grader Nick Kuzma.

OK, so he's 11, but he won an award at a statewidescience fair this spring for a science project, in which he showed how poultry litter, aka chicken poop, can break down oil.

Last fall, way before the spill, Nick, a student at Academy Heights Elementary School in Pinehurst, was assigned by teacher Beth Walker to come up with a scientific hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

Nick's family has five chickens in the backyard, and, "I thought it would be cool to use chicken manure to help the environment," he said.

On Google, he found a study led by scientists in China that showed when oil and chicken manure were combined with soil, the fecal bacteria broke down 75 percent of the oil, compared with 50 percent with just oil and soil, Nick said.

Nick went into the family's coop with a shovel, scooped out the you-know-what and put it in a bowl.

He filled 10 jars with two cups of dirt, plus two tablespoons of used motor oil. In half the jars, he put in three tablespoons of chicken manure. In the other half, he put in three more tablespoons of dirt as the control.

He let them incubate on top of the china cabinet in the kitchen for two weeks. Then he filled the jars with water, dissolving the dirt and forcing the oil to rise to the top. He measured the oil slick with a caliper.

The manure jars showed a 31.2 percent break down of the oil, while the dirt jars showed 7 percent of the oil had broken down, he said.

His project received a perfect 100 and was entered into the N.C. Science and Engineering Fair, sponsored by the N.C. Science Fair Foundation. Nick won the regional competition in March and was then one of 30 elementary students to win the "Exemplary Project" title at the state finals held at Meredith College.

Problems with poop

There are reasons you might not want to use chicken feces to soak up an oil spill, said Donna Carver, a poultry veterinarian and extension specialist who studies poultry diseases at N.C. State University.

For starters, Carver said, poultry litter is high in nitrogen. And if it gets into water systems, like streams, it can cause algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water and kill fish.

It is often used for fertilizer, but the state mandates where and when it is spread, because of the potential water pollution, she said.

Of course, the litter would be diluted in the Gulf, a much larger body of water than a stream, she said. But then there's the issue of cleaning it up.

"I assume you would have to get the litter back up," she said.

Still feeding chickens

Nick's plaque for the project now sits in his room with other trophies he has won for piano, tennis, soccer and baseball.

Since his big honor, he has gone back to his regular life, being the older brother toAnna, 9, and Nora, 1, which "has its ups and downs." And he still has his chores to do. He and Anna alternate weeks feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs before school.

Nick says he's keeping his options open for a career. Both his parents are in the medical field - his father, Paul, is an anesthesiologist, and his mother, Laura, is a social worker, who coordinates a program for cancer patients.

"Being a scientist would be really cool, but I don't know what I want to be," he said.

Asked whether he hoped BP would look into his project, Nick said, "I don't really care."

He's focused on attending Boy Scout camp this summer and seeing his friends.

"Over the summer, I might do some more testing," he said.

It may be just what BP needs.

leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

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