Emory University’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (CCHF), which manages a research team focused on changing the method for organic synthesis, was awarded a $20 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) earlier this month.

According to the director of The CCHF, Emory chemistry professor Huw Davies, the grant will support the center’s research to improve organic synthesis – which is a scientific procedure used during experiments that involve chemical reactions.

Davies said that the research team hopes to make the process of organic synthesis faster, safer and more environmentally sustainable.

Traditionally, the NSF awards one grant each year to what they consider to be a deserving chemistry laboratory.

The Emory team’s first phase of research began in 2009 when they received another NSF grant of $1.5 million.

Davies explained that with the help of their new grant, the team is now working on their second more involved and challenging phase of their research.

According to Davies, the center’s research is designed to create “a paradigm shift in how we put molecules together.”

Organic synthesis is fundamental in creating the materials people use everyday, so having the best possible process to do it is essential, Davies said.

He added that the CCHF method of using organic synthesis is different from typical synthesis because it approaches molecules from their backbone, the carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds.

Typically, scientists have targeted the outer, less stable, functional groups during their experiments.

Simon Blakey, another Emory chemistry professor and member of the CCHF, said the center utilizes organic molecules in a way that has rarely been done before, minimizing the number of steps required to create a chemical while broadening the possibilities for synthesized materials.

“There is always a drive in organic chemistry to make things more effective, make the syntheses shorter, and in the process also avoid pollutants by making the chemistry much more clean,” Davies said.

Blakey explained the center’s vision as “trying to take C-H functionalization, which is still in the realm of very basic science, and move it forward into some exciting application-based research areas.”

The professors emphasized what they felt to be the importance of this research for not only the future of organic chemistry, but also for its potential impact in areas such as pharmaceuticals, material synthesis and molecular electronics.

Davies shared how the research helps create educational opportunities for his students in the laboratory and the classroom.

“The strategy and the beauty and the art of how to design synthesis, I can bring into the classroom discussions,” Davies said.

The CCHF team also includes 25 scientists from other universities.

The other Emory faculty members who are currently working on this research project include Cora MacBeth, a chemistry professor and Jamal Musaev, director of Emory’s Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation.

Both Davies and Blakey said that they felt that the CCHF lab is unique in is its open collaboration between researchers, enhancing the range of ideas available and increasing efficiency.

Davies said that one of the most difficult parts about creating this team was getting such an incredible group to work together.

“There is a lot of building trust, and I am very proud of how this group has been able to do that,” he said. “I think it is a model of how to do research in the future in the field of organic chemistry”

Ultimately, the mission of the CCHF is to change the way people approach organic synthesis.

“The NSF had this funding mechanism which allowed us all to come together and put our ideas together and imagine something bigger and better than any one of us could do as individuals … ,” Blakey explained. “It is a really exciting opportunity.”

– By Celia Greenlaw 

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