The October 2022 issue of Car and Driver magazine arrived in my mailbox last week and included a story which triggered memories of another story which I helped circulate many years ago when I was New Mexico bureau manager for United Press International.
The story in the car magazine talked about research being done on a plant called guayule (pronounced wy-OO-lee). This desert shrub grows in the arid Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, far west Texas and parts of northern Mexico.
The research involves extracting a rubber substitute from the bush to replace rubber produced from more typical rubber trees, mostly grown in tropical areas of South America.
The story from years ago was written by a member of my staff at UPI, John Webster, a talented journalist who had a knack for finding interesting science related stories. We distributed his story on national wires regarding research being done at New Mexico State University to grow the plant commercially.
I hadn’t read any stories about the plant or the research for years, but always wondered what might have happened to plans to develop the plant as a more sustainable rubber substitute.
As it turns out, tire maker Bridgestone has been continuing its research into guayule and has already started testing tires made from rubber from the plant. It plans to begin commercial production of tires made from guayule rubber in 2030.
(Full disclosure: My new GMC pickup was equipped from the factory with Bridgestone tires — unfortunately made from regular rubber. I’m hoping when I wear them out, I can replace them with tires from rubber grown in New Mexico, but that depends on whether my current tires will last that long — not likely.)😉
There are many good things to recommend guayule rubber, according to the Car and Driver article. Being native to the arid high desert, the plants don’t require much water, can grow in rocky-sandy soil that doesn’t suit many other plants and grow in areas that would not otherwise be used for food plants. The article also notes that there are “no transoceanic supply chain issues, (and it) is far less labor intensive than (traditional rubber)… to grow and harvest.” The plants also seem to be naturally resistant to pests and the harvesting process is mechanized, as opposed to hand-harvesting rubber from traditional plants.
So promising is guayule that Bridgestone plans to invest another $42 million toward operations to expand the research and development program. Unfortunately, most of the company’s research is currently being done near Eloy, AZ, and not in New Mexico at this time.
Here’s a website link to Bridgestone’s guayule research.
The rubber is also hypoallergenic, which makes it an ideal application in the medical field and may also produce biofuels and other bio-based chemicals.
I did a follow up to see if NMSU is still doing research on guayule and through the help of my good friend and former Acting Dean of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), Dr. Jim Libbin, found someone still involved. He is Dr. Kulbhushan Grover, an Associate Professor of Sustainable Crop Production with the College of ACES who came to NMSU in 2009. Originally from India, he was most informative, enthusiastic and a delight to give me more information about research into finding what kinds of productive commercial crops can grow in arid lands (think New Mexico). Most of his research now focuses on another desert plant, guer (pronounced GOO-are) that produces a gum that can be used in a variety of consumer products like cosmetics and certain foods. Dr. Grover said its biggest application currently is in the fracking process used in so many oilfields these days.
NMSU’s original work on guayule started many years ago with a federal grant that drew in collaborators from the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bridgestone and others.
There is still some guayule research going on here and specimens of the plant are currently being grown in one of NMSU’s experimental farms (possibly at the Fabian Garcia Research Center — literally just down the street and around the corner from where we live. I plan to check it out.)
Dr. Grover game me the name of a professor currently working on that research and I’ll probably give him a call in a couple of weeks to find out what’s new.
I’m sorry if this was boring to a lot of you, but I think research like this at our public universities is a bright spot in New Mexico that we need to know about and appreciate why our Land of Enchantment is such a special place.