Middle East’s first synchrotron heralds a new era of Scientific Advancement

August 4th, 2017 | by MuslimScience
Middle East’s first synchrotron heralds a new era of Scientific Advancement

Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, also known as SESAME, is a collaborative project for scientific research and discovery between Jordan, Cyprus, Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Palestine Authority. This is an unprecedented project in the history of the Middle East because a few of the member states do not have diplomatic relations and there exist intense hostilities and rivalries; yet they have come together to support this scientific initiative.

The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications center (SESAME) in Jordan

The facility which costs USD 90 million is located in the Jordanian town of Al-Balqa and is funded by member states with support from UNESCO and the European Union. Initial funds for the building and site were offered by the government of Jordan. That coupled with annual contributions including pledges of USD 5 million each from member states of Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority cover for staff and other operational costs[1]. The European Union through CERN has also pledged 5 million dollars alongside grants from UNESCO and IAEA. The funds provided by IAEA were used for training scientists and engineers[2]. Similarly, substantial contributions were provided by Italy amounting to 3.56 million dollars till date which have been used to procure equipment and build a hostel for SEASME[3]. Founded on the model of Europe’s state of the art physics research laboratory, OPEN SESAME is the Muslim world’s only leading synchrotron.[4] [5]    The project signaling the dawn of a new era of scientific collaboration is modeled and conceptualized around CERN, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider located in Geneva.


What is SESAME?  

The synchrotron is a particle accelerator that can be used to analyze and study almost anything from environmental pollutants to human body tissues. The principle behind it is that it uses a light source that scientists can use to gather information about the structural and chemical properties of the materials at the molecular level. Globally, there are around 60 synchrotrons driving scientific research and functioning as incredible tools in medicine and engineering but SESAME is the first one in the Middle East where expert physicists and researchers practice advanced science and research.

The synchrotron is a large machine about the size of a football field that is used to accelerate electrons at a high speed. The 130 meter accelerator shoots electrons propelling them at high energy and guiding them through a circular tube. They are shot like cannon balls travelling almost at the speed of light. The resultant beam is directed towards an area where the experiments are performed. Each beam line has a specialized wavelength that can be used to analyze a broad variety of materials that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. The synchrotron has wide applications in the fields of chemistry, biology, electronics, medicine, engineering, and archeology.

The idea of the project, led by British physicist Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, was conceptualized almost 20 years ago and faced obstacles of varying nature along the way.

The Middle Eastern synchrotron faced a host of obstacles due to the complex nature of the project. The plan faced financial and technical delays almost at its onset. The hurdles were further aggravated due to regional sensitivities, governmental hostilities and miniscule science and research budgets of the member states. Iran’s contribution of 5 million dollars as part of its individual pledge faced delays due to international sanctions on banking. Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency is also an observer on the SEASME council. Despite such immense challenges, the venture still managed to materialize in the form of a world class interdisciplinary research laboratory.

What exactly does SESAME do?

Today, SESAME is capable of generating of up to 20 beamlines but scientists have initially planned to work with three.

The first is an X-ray light that has applications in environmental research and can be employed to identify potential sources of environmental pollution.

The second is an infrared light that can be used to study the structural and chemical properties of cells and their proteins.

The third MX (Macromolecular Crystallography – a radiation technique used to study biological molecules) can be used to study the structural characteristics of viruses in order to develop effective drugs against them. Efforts are underway to introduce an imaging beamline to study archaeological or cultural heritage artefacts.

The project open to international and Middle Eastern researchers in universities and scientists, has already received 55 proposals to use the first two beamlines. In Jordan, an advanced research center has been established to study globally relevant problems pertaining to the environment and public health. A project to determine the causes of soil pollution in the Jordan River Valley spearheaded by scientist Messaoud Harfouche and other collaborators from Egypt and Jordan is underway. Similarly researchers are probing the causes and environmental factors linked to cancer which is on the rise in the Middle Eastern region.

In addition, an advanced training program was initiated to train scientists and engineers from the region to impart critical knowledge about the accelerator technology and its uses. Sesame has successfully conducted 30 trainings in the Middle East and other countries and has trained 750 scientists and engineers about the applications of synchrotron technology. The program also offers opportunities of international exposure and collaboration where around 105 research students and scientists were given the opportunity to gain firsthand experience of using the radiation sources by spending up to two years at other synchrotron radiation facilities in Europe, USA and Asia. This program enjoys the support of IAEA and the European Union.

The region’s first synchrotron and the only one being powered by renewable energy holds tremendous potential for advancements in research and technology for future generations. It is the transformative power of science that has enabled scientists and researchers from countries like Iran and Israel to work together despite tensions between their regional countries.

The facility will serve to usher in a new era of scientific knowledge and discovery in this part of the world fostering international scientific collaborations, promoting the development of industrial processes and providing individuals with an environment for scientific research and collaboration. SESAME aspires to reverse the brain drain in the region by promoting research in fields ranging from medicine and biology, through materials science, physics and chemistry to healthcare, the environment, agriculture and archaeology.

Along with this, SESAME also fosters scientific and technological capacity building in the Middle East and neighboring regions. Enhanced scientific links are being developed to nurture a culture of peace through collaboration on scientific advancements.










Comments are closed.