Emory receives $20 million NSF grant for chemistry center

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Sep. 17, 2012

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"Today, more than ever, new products and materials need to be made efficiently, and in an environmentally sustainable way," says Huw Davies, director of the new center. Emory Photo/Video.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $20 million to Emory University’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, which brings together scientists from leading research universities across the country working to revolutionize the field of organic synthesis.

"We believe that C-H functionalization will have a huge impact on the development of new drugs and other fine-chemical products, by breaking new ground for organic synthesis, and making it faster, simpler and greener," says Huw Davies, professor of chemistry at Emory and the director of the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (CCHF).

"The center is at the forefront of a major paradigm shift in organic chemistry," Davies adds. "We’re not just driving new methods of synthesis, we’re building new models for teaching and research."

Most of the synthetic products of modern daily life — from our coffee cups and clothes to medications — are derived from organic synthesis. Chemists start with simple, bulk chemicals that are readily accessible, like petroleum and plant extracts. These bulk materials are converted into commodity chemicals and then into finer chemicals through step-by-step transformations. These steps eventually lead to more elaborate structures like plastic, nylon and drugs.

"The challenge, and the art, of organic synthesis is controlling the reaction at each stage of the process," Davies says. "You want to modify just one reactive site at a time."

Traditionally, organic chemistry has focused on the division between reactive, or functional, molecular bonds and the inert, or non-functional bonds carbon-carbon (C-C) and carbon-hydrogen (C-H). The inert bonds provide a strong, stable scaffold for performing chemical synthesis on the reactive groups. C-H functionalization flips this model on its head.

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