Powering cars with gopher plant . . . inventing robot hands that ''feel'' . . . using buffalo gourd, a prairie plant, to make plastics biodegradable.
These are a few of the projects being worked on by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tucson. At a time when many schools across the country are pinched for funding as a result of government cutbacks, the university here is taking in record levels of research money - much of it from private sources.
Corporate largess in particular is helping cement this Sunbelt school's position as an institution respected for its excellence in research, one hallmark of a great university.
Pulling in $61.3 million in fiscal 1980-81, the university ranked a modest 26 th among all schools in research funding. But it placed sixth among institutions and third among public schools in support from industry, some $7.7 million.
One reason for the corporate backing is the 97-year-old school's strength in areas such as anthropology, optical sciences, astronomy, arid-land studies, and electrical engineering. The level of research is likely to grow even more in the future. The university's Environmental Research Laboratory, for instance, is now working on roughly $4 million in research projects.
The university also plans to beef up the work it's doing in high-technology areas. This coincides with Tucson's rise as an electronics center.
''The private-support money in high-tech areas is indispensable,'' says A. Richard Kassander Jr., university vice-president for research. ''The support tends to migrate toward those areas that are at the state-of-the-art in their research.''