A number of new N-heterocyclic carbene (NHC) ligands were synthesized via a multicomponent reaction, wherein an aldehyde or ketone, a primary amine and an a-acidic isocyanide were reacted, giving the corresponding 2H-2-imidazolines. These were easily alkylated with an alkyl halide at position N-3, yielding the final NHC precursors, that were then complexed with Ru in situ. The resulting complexes are shown to be active and selective catalysts for the transfer hydrogenation of furfural to furfurol, using isopropanol as the hydrogen source. Importantly, the carbene ligand remains coordinated to the ruthenium center throughout the reaction. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.