In a Fractious Region, a New Physics Facility Fosters Collaboration
AMMAN—For many scientists in the Middle East, conducting research requires traveling to laboratories outside the region. But now researchers have a new, world-class physics facility closer to home, which they hope will lead to advances in a wide range of disciplines, slow brain drain from the region, and encourage home-grown science and technology.
The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, a research laboratory located about 30 kilometers northwest of the Jordanian capital, is a particle accelerator, a powerful instrument in a warehouse-size building that enables the study of materials at the atomic and subatomic level.
The laboratory is known by the acronym Sesame, a name that has vivid cultural associations in the region, referring to an essential element of local cuisine, and to an Arab folk tale included in the Thousand Nights and A Night, in which a hero uncovers a hoard of treasure by calling out the magic password “Open sesame!”
The facility was officially opened by King Abdullah II in May 2017, and researchers began working there in November. This year, its administration plans to double its physical capacity by adding two new beamlines—the powerful light sources at the heart of the device. And starting next month, it will begin a program to power the energy-hungry facility with solar electricity.
A synchrotron generates powerful beams of subatomic particles which are accelerated in a ring-shaped structure and then directed at a target for analysis; in essence, working like a giant microscope. Particle accelerators like Sesame are all based on the model of a circular chamber which produces concentrated bursts of intense energy. The largest such accelerator in the world is the Large Hadron Collider located at the border of France and Switzerland and operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN; its accelerator ring has a circumference of 27 kilometers. Sesame’s accelerator ring is small by comparison, with a circumference of 130 meters.
The synchrotron’s particle beams can be adapted for research in fields such as biology, archaeology and medical sciences. In the second half of 2018, 23 experiments were conducted at Sesame by users from member and nonmember countries, an administrator said. For example, researchers from Cyprus are analysing pages from an ancient Persian text: They are using Sesame to carry out spectroscopy on the materials of the manuscript. The results can show the age and chemical composition of the inks and paper used. Similar work is being done on artifacts from the ancient Nabataean site of Petra, in the south of Jordan, a popular tourist attraction.
About 70 synchrotron facilities exist around the world, either in operation or under construction. Sesame is the only one in the Middle East and North Africa.
If one feature of the project is successfully developed, Sesame will have another claim to being unique. “Sesame will be the first synchrotron light source in the world to use electricity generated entirely by a solar power plant,” says Walid Zidan, Sesame’s administrative director. “A synchrotron uses huge amounts of electricity.”
Sesame’s electricity bill at present is approximately $15,000 a day.
Unlike some of its neighbors, Jordan does not have its own sources of oil, and 90 percent of its electricity is generated by imported fuel.
“We realized several years ago that we needed to control the operational costs of Sesame, so taking into consideration the fact that Jordan has limited resources we decided to build a solar power plant, to feed Sesame with the electricity needed to operate the machine and to power the building itself,” Zidan said. “We presented this idea to the European Commission, and they approved a grant of seven million euros to build a solar power plant. We started the project with a Jordanian company that specialises in solar power generation.”
The solar power plant will begin supplying electricity to Sesame next month. “We are expecting that this will reduce Sesame’s electricity bill by 70 to 80 percent,” Zidan said. “It will save a lot of money.”
The Sesame project began in 1999 as an initiative by Unesco. As a United Nations organization, its motivation was to promote international cooperation. Sesame was modeled on the example of CERN, which was established in 1954, according to Chris Llewellyn Smith, who was president of the Sesame council from 2008 to 2017. CERN had two aims: “to enable the construction of expensive facilities beyond the means of any individual European country,” he wrote in a paper presented at a conference in 2017, “and to foster collaboration between countries that had very recently been in conflict.”
“CERN has found that, although they are often initially mutually suspicious, scientists and engineers with very different political and religious views and cultures who work together develop technical respect,” Llewellyn Smith wrote, adding, “This is also happening at Sesame.”
The project brings together Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These eight countries have a history of conflict, and in some cases conflict continues. Jordan was chosen to host the project, its instruments and laboratory because it was the only country among the eight that had diplomatic relations with all the others.
Jordan accordingly donated land adjacent to al-Balqa’ Applied University, near the city of al-Salt, and construction began with the installation in 2002 of components of a decommissioned synchrotron donated by the Helmholtz research center in Berlin.
“Sesame is built on the philosophy of scientific diplomacy,” Walid Zidan said. “The idea is to bring people from different nations, religions and cultures together, speaking only one language—that is, the language of science.”
Still, the Ramallah-based Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) National Committee has called on Unesco to exclude Israel from the Sesame consortium, on grounds that its membership constitutes normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states.
“Master’s degree and doctoral students in the region now no longer have to go abroad to interact with the international research community,” said Giorgio Paolucci, Sesame’s scientific director. “It provides the region with a unique research infrastructure, fosters basic and applied science and contributes to international research in the region.”
Over 100 proposals to use the laboratory this year have been submitted.
“The construction of Sesame,” Chris Llewellyn Smith wrote, “has been a victory of optimism over scepticism and realism.”