Chemists Unite

Emory's CCHF connects universities and industries to advance innovation in organic chemistry

Huw Davies
Stephen Nowland

The National Science Foundation has awarded another $20 million to Emory’s Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (CCHF) to fund the next phase of a global effort to revolutionize the field of organic synthesis.

“Our center is at the forefront of a major shift in the way that we do chemistry,” says Huw Davies, professor of chemistry and the director of the CCHF. “This shift holds great promise for creating new pathways for drug discovery and the production of new materials to benefit everything from agriculture to electronics.”

The CCHF began in 2009 as an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation, with a seed grant of $1.5 million and four collaborating universities. In 2012, the NSF awarded the CCHF its first $20 million, enabling it to grow to encompass sixteen US institutions and seven industrial affiliates, including six major pharmaceutical companies and one of the largest US chemical suppliers. The center also built global connections with major players in C-H functionalization in Japan, South Korea, and the UK.

The CCHF has led the way for explosive growth in the field of C-H functionalization, publishing more than two hundred papers on the topic through its collaborators. It has developed dozens of new catalysts for C-H functionalization, including four major classes from the Huw Davies group.

“During the past five years, we’ve developed the fundamentals for C-H functionalization and documented that the concept is viable,” Davies says. “Now we’re ideally positioned to maximize the further development of this chemistry and move forward to apply it.”

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

“We’ve devised ways to make C-H bonds react so that they become functional,” Davies says. “And we’ve reached the stage where it is no longer the molecule itself that determines the process of the reaction—we’ve developed advanced catalysts that allow us to control which carbon-hydrogen bond within a molecule will react and when.”

C-H functionalization opens unexplored chemical space by taking petroleum byproducts, which have a lot of carbon-hydrogen bonds, and transforming them from waste into useful materials. It also strips out steps from the linear process of traditional organic synthesis, making it faster and more efficient.

The CCHF is not only transforming organic synthesis—it’s also creating new models for the way organic chemistry is taught and how labs conduct research. Where previously individual labs tended to work in isolation to tackle problems, the CCHF has broken down walls across specialties, institutions, and even countries to collectively take on the remaining challenges of selective C-H functionalization.

“We’ve got this incredible collaborative environment where organic chemists aren’t just sharing results—they’re sharing ideas,” Davies says. “That’s rare. And we’ve expanded beyond our network of universities to also engage the pharmaceutical industry.”

In 2015, the CCHF launched online symposia on recent advances in C-H functionalization. Graduate students and chemistry faculty from up to forty-five countries join the symposia, held about four times a year.

“We have leading voices in the field give these free talks that are easy to join live and participate in,” Davies says. “The aim is to further expand the field of C-H functionalization by introducing it to graduate students and other chemists around the world.”

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