Developing a biocompatible and biodegradable polyurethane foam for use in hydroponic agriculture

Grantham Scholar Sophia van Mourik is developing a biocompatible and biodegradable synthetic soil substrate for hydroponic agriculture that can be reclaimed at the end-of-life. 

The project

Bringing about sustainable food production and the end-of-life treatment of plastics are two prominent areas of sustainability research. This interdisciplinary project will enable us to combine the knowledge from plant biology, microbiology, metabolomics and polymer chemistry to arrive at a sustainable hydroponic agriculture substrate solution with end-of-life recycling opportunities.

An interest in developing controlled environment agriculture (CEA) farming systems such as hydroponics provides an opportunity to reduce water consumption, land-use and more efficient, environmentally friendly farming practises to help meet growing demand for food production. The primary aim of the project is to develop a more biocompatible and biodegradable synthetic soil substrate from polyurethane foam for hydroponic agriculture that can be fully reclaimed at the end-of-life and thus bring about a circular life cycle.

By incorporating bio-derived starting materials into the foam formulation, the projects aims to develop a plastic material that can be fully utilised by soil microorganisms and converted back into starting materials or further processed to provide fertilizer to the next generation of crops. Careful consideration of the foam-to-plant-to-crop process in terms of food safety and comparison with existing substrate media such as rockwool and coco coir will be needed. Therefore, modern mass-spectrometry metabolomics methods will be used to characterise the microbiome that develops and any degradation and leaching from the substrate into the crop.

This project is in collaboration with Dow Chemical Company and Institute for Sustainable Food.


Fulbright and Gilman Scholars visit the Grantham Centre. In the summer of 2022 we were delighted to work with Global Engagement to host 25 Gilman Scholars and 58 Fulbright Scholars for a climate change themed conference. Several Grantham Scholars helped host the visitors, including Sophia van Mourik.

Sophia helped out at the 2022 Global Woman’s Breakfast Sheffield. This event was run by International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry to promote women in Chemistry and other STEM subjects.

Sophia van Mourik on social media

You can find Sophia on Twitter.

And you can connect with her on LinkedIn.


A close up on Tony Ryan at work in his lab

Professor Tony Ryan OBE

Grantham Centre Co-Director