E.U. nationals: The use of surfactants to improve water use efficiency and optimise crop yields PhD

Cranfield University

Cranfield, Bedford, UK 🇬🇧

Future food security relies on the efficient and sustainable use of finite land and water resources. Water use efficiency in crops is critical, especially in irrigated systems. Surfactants can improve water penetration into soils, increase soil water retention and increase water availability to crops. However, more work is required to understand the behavioural characteristics of surfactant applications in different soil types, assessing their performance to increase soil water use efficiency in different crops and growing systems. Using unique experimental facilities at Cranfield, this exciting, fully funded PhD opportunity is sponsored by ICL, a leading manufacturer of sustainable agriculture products.

70% of the earth’s available fresh water is used for irrigation in agriculture and 40% of the world’s food is currently cultivated in farms using artificially irrigated cropping systems. It is estimated that many of these farms are using 2 to 3 times more water than their crop requires.

In order to meet the increasing future demand for fresh produce, a greater understanding of water use efficiency is required to optimise irrigation in cropping systems, to manage the infinite resource of fresh water and to increase cropping areas.

Surfactant chemistries can improve water penetration into soils, increase soil water retention in hydrophobic soils and increase water availability to crops. Products containing these technologies in the field have been shown to maintain or increase yields with significantly reduced irrigation input.

More work is required to understand the behavioural characteristics of surfactant applications in different soil types, including their impact on soil water characteristics, behaviour and the most efficient use in different cropping and irrigation systems. This PhD will investigate surfactants’ mode of action, analysing different surfactants and blends on different soil types, then demonstrate a cause and effect link by gathering data on different crops and growing systems, assessing performance and potential to increase soil water use efficiency.

Cranfield University is a global leader in transformational agricultural and environmental science, technology, engineering and management. Our internationally recognised academics undertake research, consultancy, and postgraduate education and training, using multidisciplinary approaches to tackle sustainability from the field to landscape scale. Our research on the sustainable use of natural resources worldwide is recognised by the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 (for water and sanitation) and again in 2017 (for applications of large-scale soil and environmental data).

By improving the water use efficiency of crops (particularly in dryland areas), the use of surfactants will reduce irrigation demand, whilst maintaining crop yields and crop quality. Reducing crop water requirements will bring economic, environmental and social benefits to farmers, leading to more sustainable farming systems. Better understanding of the effectiveness of surfactant products and their mechanisms of operation will improve product formulation and efficacy in the future.

As part of a thriving research community, you will have access to Cranfield University’s unique, world-class experimental facilities including soil and water analytical laboratories. These are supported by recent investment in the £13m AgriEPI and CHAP AgriTech Centres. There will be opportunities to present your findings at key conferences, travel restrictions permitting. As well as the Cranfield Doctoral Network, you will be part of the Crop-Soil-Water Research Group which brings together a lively community of like-minded research students, research fellows and academics.

This exciting, fully funded PhD opportunity is sponsored by ICL, a leading manufacturer of agriculture products committed to making an impact in the worlds of food, agriculture, and industrial products, and advancing humanity for a sustainable future: https://www.icl-group.com/sustainability/

Undertaking a PhD at Cranfield will provide you with many opportunities for personal and professional development. As well as the technical training in research skills, you will be supported in developing your knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; and communication skills to ensure your research has influence and impact. Post-PhD employment prospects are excellent, thanks to Cranfield’s close links with business, industry and government. Students graduating from Cranfield leave with the skills, knowledge and inspiration to forge long and successful careers.

The interview date for shortlisted applicants will be Friday 29 October 2021.

Previous applicants need not re-apply.

At a glance

  • Application deadline: 24 Oct 2021
  • Award type(s): PhD
  • Start date: 08 Nov 2021
  • Duration of award: 3 years
  • Eligibility: UK
  • Reference number: SWEE0161


Prof Jane Rickson

Prof Tim Hess

Entry requirements

Applicants should have a first or second class UK honours degree or equivalent in a related discipline. This project would be particularly suited to graduates in soil science, environmental science, agriculture, biology, physical geography and chemistry.


To be eligible for this funding, applicants must be a UK or EU national. We require that applicants are under no restrictions regarding how long they can stay in the UK i.e. have no visa restrictions or applicant has “settled status” and has been “ordinarily resident” in the UK for 3 years prior to start of studies and has not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education. (This does not apply to UK or EU nationals). Due to funding restrictions, all EU nationals are eligible to receive a fees-only award if they do not have “settled status” in the UK.


Sponsored by the ICL Group, this studentship will provide a bursary of ÂŁ20,000 per annum (tax free) plus full fees for three years.

Diversity and Inclusion at Cranfield

At Cranfield, we value our diverse staff and student community and maintain a culture where everyone can work and study together harmoniously with dignity and respect. This is reflected in our University values of ambition, impact, respect and community. We welcome students and staff from all backgrounds from over 100 countries and support our staff and students to realise their full potential, from academic achievement to mental and physical wellbeing.

We are committed to progressing the diversity and inclusion agenda, for example; gender diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) through our Athena SWAN Bronze award and action plan, we are members of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and Working Families, and sponsors of International Women in Engineering Day. We are also Disability Confident Level 1 Employers and members of the Business Disability Forum.

Cranfield Doctoral Network

Research students at Cranfield benefit from being part of a dynamic, focused and professional study environment and all become valued members of the Cranfield Doctoral Network. This network brings together both research students and staff, providing a platform for our researchers to share ideas and collaborate in a multi-disciplinary environment. It aims to encourage an effective and vibrant research culture, founded upon the diversity of activities and knowledge. A tailored programme of seminars and events, alongside our Doctoral Researchers Core Development programme (transferable skills training), provide those studying a research degree with a wealth of social and networking opportunities.

How to apply

For further information please contact:

Name: Professor Jane Rickson

Email: [email protected]

If you are eligible to apply for the PhD, please complete the online PhD application form stating the reference No. SWEE0161.

The interview date for shortlisted applicants will be Friday 29 October 2021.