We are pleased to present Professor Anthony J Ryan OBE to speak on his work with polymer science in refugee camps.

Date: Thursday, 30 September

Time: 4 - 5pm

Venue: Online Via Zoom

Click here to access the free seminar.


Zaatari refugee camp, where 80,000 people are squeezed into six square kilometres, is an inspiring place to work. The refugees’ legal status usually prevents them from taking up employment, owning property or moving freely, stripping them of agency. At home they were farmers, engineers, teachers, doctors, so not only have they been forcibly displaced, but also forcibly unemployed. And they can’t do anything that even looks like it might lead to permanence, like getting a job or fixing their house. Despite this, the eagerness to put a plan into action was truly astounding, it is incredible to see the resilience of the Za’atari folk.

Our research on hydroponics is focused on the production of high-value crops close to market (urban farming) with a low carbon and water footprint using polyurethane foam as a synthetic soil. I will show how a design of experiments approach can predict the productivity of crops from the reagents used in polyurethane synthesis through the properties of the foam.

We connected our work on synthetic soils with a waste disposal problem posed by UNHCR - the UN's refugee agency.  They saw dirty unused mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate and more than that ‘a problem’ that could actually help. In doing so we developed small-scale hydroponics at the household and community scale. There are benefits that come from the act of co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in, and the equality found in some academic humility and what happens between people when safety is taken away. We responded to the frequent cry of the Syrian refugees - that they miss the colour green - not only did we find a technical fix, but also an impact on well being. These benefits our work in Sheffield, we now have an urban farm built using the low-cost technology developed in Zaatari with farmers from Syria.

The Covid19 pandemic affects the whole world and back in March 2020 we were contacted by UNHCR for help with PPE and hand hygiene.  In both the UK and Jordan we have made prototypes of masks, shields and gowns using digital printing and sewing capabilities and there have been co-created innovations in both design and joining technologies. We are now running a remote interdisciplinary co-production project, comprising a socio-technical part focused on designing PPE and hand hygiene solutions for impoverished refugee camps and the host community, and socio-behavioural part, understanding how the availability of PPE affects people's attitudes and behaviours around risk, and so enables them to address health threats.

The people who live these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those we met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must work to live in a world where no one is forced to flee their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.


Presenter: Professor Anthony J Ryan OBE, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sheffield and the founding Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

Professor Tony RyanTony focuses on the global challenge of the food, water, and energy nexus; feeding a growing world population; reducing the impacts of agriculture and food production that account for 30% of green house gas emissions and 70% of water use; and harnessing the power of the sun for renewable energy. He leads the University of Sheffield's programme in sustainability research, integrating across traditional boundaries in the pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine, and social sciences.

Tony is active in translational research, disseminating evidence-based science to both experts and non-experts, and has been a regular contributor to TV, Radio, National Press and at learned societies from The Royal Society of Chemistry to Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. He presented evidence at the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris in 2015 and returned to COP22 in Marrakech in 2016.
His research covers sustainable synthesis, structure, processing, and applications of polymers using advanced analytical and measurement techniques. Recent research projects included renewable sources for polyurethane synthesis, organic photovoltaics, maximising the properties of polymers and biopolymers through flow-induced crystallisation, formulation of home and personal care products and polymer foams for high intensity urban agriculture. The emphasis throughout is on understanding the fundamental science & technology in order to minimise resource use.

He has co-authored more than 350 papers and patents and 2 books. His text book, "Polymer Processing and Structure Development" with Arthur Wilkinson, is used in Universities world-wide. His sustainability book, “The Solar Revolution”, co-authored with Steve McKevitt, a social scientist, has had great reviews; it puts into context how we come to live on a planet supporting 7 billion people and what we have to do make sure in remains inhabitable (and prosperous) for the foreseeable future.

Tony holds a BSc and PhD from the University of Manchester and a DSc from UMIST. He held a NATO Research Fellowship at the University of Minnesota, was a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader in Materials Science at The University of Manchester and was seconded to the Synchrotron Radiation Source at Daresbury. In 1997 he moved to Sheffield and served as Head of Chemistry before becoming the Pro Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Science in 2008, a role which he fulfilled until 2016. In 2002 he delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and was awarded an OBE in 2006 for 'Services to Science'.

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