A synchrotron for science and for peace

In Jordan, parts of the synchrotron are already built. Picture courtesy of SESAME
Parts of the accelerator are already built, thanks to a former German synchrotron called BESSY, in Allan, Jordan. Picture courtesy of SESAME

The SESAME project aims to build the very first synchrotron particle accelerator in the Middle East. It just received EUR 5 million funding from the EU, and the new machine, which should be operational in 2016, is under construction in Jordan. It is an ambitious tool for science in the region… but also for peace.

‘It was in 1994, just after the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. With Professor Sergio Fubini, an Italian colleague at CERN, and others, we launched the idea of creating a synchrotron in the Middle East,’ said Professor Eliezer Rabinovici, an Israeli physicist at CERN, in Geneva. ‘At that time, nobody believed in it. Today, we're almost there.’

SESAME was established under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Alongside its scientific aims, which are to foster scientific excellence in the Middle East, the project also aims to promote peace in the region.

‘We quickly chose the "bottom-up" option,’ Prof. Rabinovici said. ‘Scientists from different countries were the first ones to work together on this project in order to generate confidence.’

Today, this unique joint venture based in Jordan brings together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey.

‘Some of the research projects that will be carried out at SESAME actually address regional issues, some others concentrate on universal problems,' said Dr Zehra Sayers, a founding member of Sabanci University in Turkey and co-chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of SESAME. 'But, what is important is that scientists from Israel, from Egypt, from Jordan or from Iran, among others, are collaborating on these projects, because they all speak the same language: the language of Science.’

Prof. Rabinovici, a specialist in high-energy physics at the Racah Institute of Physics. Picture courtesy of SESAMEProf. Rabinovici, a specialist in high-energy physics at the Racah Institute of Physics. Picture courtesy of SESAMESESAME is an autonomous intergovernmental organisation at the service of its members, who have full control over its development, exploitation and financial matters.

‘The spirit of this project is the same as the one of CERN, fostering peace and collaboration through scientific cooperation,’ said Prof. Rabinovici, a specialist in high-energy physics at the Racah Institute of Physics, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

‘But, there is one difference with SESAME. In Europe, the war is over. In my region, the war is not over. And the machine here is much smaller than CERN, but the difficulties are much larger than CERN had,’ he said.

The building that will host the new synchrotron is already a reality in Jordan. It is located in Allan, some 35 kilometres northwest of Amman. Parts of the accelerator are already built, thanks to a former German synchrotron called BESSY which was donated to SESAME.  In terms of funding, the project lacked the budget to complete the machine. However, with European Union funding, the completion of the machine moves one step further. It will allow CERN, working with SESAME, to supply magnets for the new electron storage ring - the heart of the facility. This will pave the way for SESAME to begin operating in 2016.

‘Today, there are more than 60 synchrotrons in the world but none of them are in the Middle East. I believe that a light source like SESAME can be a beacon of hope and high scientific achievement for the region, even if science is not high on the agenda of most of the Member States of SESAME for the moment,’ said Dr Sayers.

What is a synchrotron?

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator where electrons circulate at nearly the speed of light inside a ring-shaped tube under a vacuum.

The electrons are maintained on track in this storage ring thanks to a series of magnets that bend their trajectories.

Whenever the electrons are slightly redirected, they emit a synchrotron light. This light is collected in so-called beam-lines, and is guided through a set of lenses and instruments where the synchrotron light illuminates and interacts with samples of material.

Synchrotron light allows scientists to study matter on scales ranging from biological cells to atoms in many fields like archaeology, biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, medicine, or physics.

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