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Research / Discovery

Chemistry team lands $4.4 million grant

September 25, 2013

Four-year grant funds research that could make discovery process simpler, cheaper and more earth-friendly.

Anthony Rappe is the principal investigator for a $4.4 million NSF/EPA grant for the Department of Chemistry.Colorado State University’s Department of Chemistry has been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency to complete a study that could revolutionize pharmaceutical production by making it cheaper, safer and more sustainable.

The grant, one of the largest in the history of CSU’s Department of Chemistry, part of the College of Natural Sciences, is one of four awarded nationally, with nearly 60 proposals submitted. The four-year grant will support up to 15 postdoctoral associates, undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral researchers each year.

Groundbreaking research

The research, led by chemistry professor Anthony Rappé, will investigate whether earth-abundant materials such as iron and titanium, when exposed to sunlight, can provide the chemical reactions required to create certain pharmaceuticals. If successful, the research could make pharmaceutical discovery and production safer and more environmentally friendly.

“This is an exciting project that brings together an impressive team of scholars that includes professors Matt Shores, Eric Ferreira and Tomislav Rovis from CSU, and professor Niels Damrauer from the University of Colorado-Boulder,” said Jan Nerger, Dean of CSU’s College of Natural Sciences. “This is one of many exciting projects taking place in the Department of Chemistry, which continually demonstrates why it is respected worldwide.”

A history of discovery

Rappé, the principal investigator, said the team’s research was made possible by the outstanding work done by past CSU giants in chemistry.

“Grant director Matt Shores has assembled a truly collaborative trans-disciplinary team to tackle the important challenge of sustainable organic synthesis,” Rappé said. “In a sense, this work stands on the shoulders of the pioneering efforts of professors John Stille, Al Meyers and Lou Hegedus here at CSU. The prestige they afforded CSU has permitted us to hire the young folks leading the charge in this current effort.”

The team includes synthetic organic as well as inorganic chemists, computational chemists, and spectroscopists.

“We want to provide a sustainable future for our children, but this can’t be accomplished just by cutting back. We as a society need our life-saving pharmaceuticals. We just need them discovered and produced in an environmentally conscious way,” Rappé added.

More efficient, less waste

Rovis said 93 percent of the approximately 200 top-selling brand name drugs in 2011 contained at least one nitrogen atom in their molecular structure, and 60 percent had a nitrogen-containing heterocycle, a molecular ring containing carbon and other elements.

The team hypothesizes that these chemical structures can be produced using sunlight and earth-abundant catalysts. If this is possible, a wide range of pharmaceuticals can be manufactured using less energy and producing fewer by-products.

Aiding education, too

Translation of the research will be facilitated by Jeremy Nelson from CSU Ventures, with results integrated into teaching and outreach efforts by Bill Timpson, professor in the School of Education; Stacey Baumgarn, campus energy coordinator; and CSU’s Chemistry Club, mentored by academic support coordinator Randy Booth. The lessons learned are expected to greatly improve the way chemistry is taught in grades K-12 and beyond. 

“The NSF/EPA grant represents a huge opportunity for our faculty to pursue new collaborative avenues for research as well as develop unique educational opportunities for students,” said Department of Chemistry chair Ellen R. Fisher. “It is especially gratifying to see recognition of the department’s efforts in areas that are central to CSU’s mission and values with respect to empowering sustainability through research and educational programs that address global challenges.”