Tucson, Ariz. — There's new oil being tapped in weed- cluttered acres of the Southwest, but it's not being drilled. It's being grown.m The key is hydrocarbons -- the organic compound found in crude oil but which nature also produces in certain plants that are now being seriously considered as a potential source of energy for an oil-thirsty world.
Several plants, including the copaiba tree found in Brazil and the jojoba bean, are known to produce a milky sap from which oil can be extracted. But the plant drawing the widest scientific scrutiny these dayss is gopherweed -- a rangy, dark green weed with long spear-shaped leaves that grows wild in parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California.
Already, researchers in the Office of Arid Land Studies at the Universtiy of Arizona -- aided by a $2 million grant from a small Texas oil company -- have found they can produce nine barrels of oil from one acre of gopherweed.
While that may not sound like much, Dr. Timothy Peoples, who heads the agricultural section of the university project, estimates that within a few years that yield can be more than doubled to 20 barrels an acre.
At that rate, he says, "gopheroil" could be put on the market at $20 a barrel -- well below the $32 now being fetched for a barrel of crude oil, and within 10 to 15 years, Dr. Peoples predicts, 10 percent of the nation's energy needs -- approximately 800 million barrels of oil -- could be supplied by gopherweed grown on "petroleum plantations."
Although the oil crunch has helped nudge gopherweed into the energy spotlight , the first known research on Euphorbia lathyrism as an alternative fuel was actually carried out by the Italians during World War II.
Work was abandoned at the close of the war and was not picked up again until the gasoline crisis of 1974, when Melvin Calvin, a Nobel-prize-winning professor at the University of California, Berkeley, began research of his own.
Today, the US Department of Energy has earmarked only $250,000 for gopherweed research in the form of a grant won by Dr. Calvin. But rising oil prices have made gopherweed appear so viable that a number of universities and independent researchers have begun experimenting with the plant.
The most extensive work is carried on at the University of Arizona, where researchers expect the current project will continue to be funded by the Diamond Shamrock Corporation, a Cleveland-based firm dealing mostly in industrial and agricultural chemicals as well as oil and gas. Diamond Shamrock already has plans on the drawing board for a plant for extracting gopheroil.
According to Dr. Peoples, inquiries about gopherweed production have come from as far away as Egypt, Austria, the Virgin Islands, Australia, and Kenya,a country which currently imports all of its oil.
Researchers have much to learn about cultivating gopherweed -- what fertilizers to use and how much water plants need, for example -- before the plant can be grown on a large scale.
And while there are only about 10 acres of Euphorbia lathyrism now planted in Arizona, Dr. PEoples estimates that 1.3 million acres of gopherweed -- the amount of land now farmed in the state -- could make Arizona energy self-sufficient.
With 40 million acres, or slightly less than half of the acreage the US now plants in corn, Dr. Peoples estimates that the goal of meeting 10 percent of the nation's energy needs could be reached.
"Everybody wants to get into this -- it's the place to be," says the researcher, who adds that he initially thought the idea of growing oil was "a bunch of gargage."
"Within 10 to 15 years, we can be growing energy in a substantial way," he continues. "How much and where are questions that must be answered."