Synthesis is the production of chemical compounds by reaction from simpler materials. The construction of complex and defined new molecules is a challenging and complicated undertaking, and one that requires the constant development of new reactions, catalysts and techniques.

Synthesis projects underpin developments in a very wide range of areas. This makes chemical synthesis a unique and enabling science; it means that the design of new molecules can be put into practice so that the target compounds can be made and tested for interesting properties or activity. 

Photo of the inside of a typical synthesis research laboratory in the CRL


Areas in which synthesis is essential

Catalysis is critical to a very wide range of industrial processes, encompassing both bulk and fine chemical manufacture.  The rational design, synthesis and optimization of catalyst systems is therefore crucial to the development of more efficient, selective and environmentally tolerant processes.  Research in this area is focussed on both metal-containing and metal-free systems, and targets not only better catalysts for existing processes but also entirely new catalytic transformations.

Medicine and drug discovery
The development of new pharmaceutical products is an extremely important aspect of organic synthesis.  This undertaking enables the discovery and optimisation of complex molecules with potent and selective biological activity.  An understanding of synthetic chemistry allows balancing of chemical properties so that the molecules behave as desired in cells and patients.  New reaction development is another essential facet of this work, because it opens up previously inaccessible routes to new compounds.

New materials
The preparation of functional materials with custom-designed properties (e.g. electronic, optical, magnetic) is fundamental to breakthroughs in areas such as batteries, solar cell development, superconductors, smart materials etc., which hold much promise for future technologies.  Oxford has a long-established track record in this area, with the fundamental synthetic work underpinning lithium ion battery technology having been carried out in the Department.

Chemical biology
The synthesis of molecules that are designed to interact with and probe biological systems is very useful for investigating and understanding the processes involved in living systems.  Such compounds allow us to understand fundamental biological processes more clearly, and to aid drug discovery through effective target validation.

Photo of three examples of complex molecules

Natural products
The history of medicines, flavourings and agrochemicals illustrates the central importance of natural products.  Synthetic chemistry is very useful in mimicking Nature and allowing us to prepare complex molecules that are produced naturally but without disrupting the source itself.  Such natural products, and analogues thereof, have myriad uses as drugs, flavourings and agrochemicals.

Photo showing four examples of imaging techniques

Synthetic dyes and probes have been extremely important in recent developments in imaging, which means that more powerful and less intrusive techniques can be used in the search for diseased or damaged tissue.