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Quest for a Scientific Source of Light in the Middle East Nears Completion


Chris Llewellyn-Smith, Zehra Sayers, Eliezer Rabinovici, and Gihan Kamel discussed the upcoming launch of SESAME, the Middle East's first synchrotron light source. | Ashley Gilleland/AAAS

It has been a long and sometimes difficult road, but later this year a new synchrotron light source called SESAME is expected to begin operations at a site near the Jordanian capital of Amman. 

SESAME—Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East—is the first synchrotron light source in the Middle East and, its backers say, will be the first true international center of scientific excellence in the region.

“The first news is that it exists at all,” said Chris Llewellyn-Smith, a former director-general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Llewellyn-Smith is president of the international council that is leading the SESAME project. “I believe I am correct in saying that I chair the only body in the world outside of the United Nations that has representatives of Iran and Israel in the same room,” Llewellyn-Smith said in a 14 February meeting with reporters at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Synchrotron light sources produce electromagnetic radiation that can be used to probe the structure and behavior of matter. They have become valuable tools in many fields of science, including biology, chemistry, materials science, environmental science, and archaeology. While there are nearly 50 such facilities worldwide, SESAME will be the first in the Middle East. It is expected to nourish scientific and technological capabilities in a strife-torn region and foster better understanding among peoples with different religious creeds and political systems.

SESAME’s organization is modeled after CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The current members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. More than a dozen nations, including the United States, are observers. 

The first of 16 magnet assemblies that will make up the storage ring for SESAME has been completed and tested at CERN. The coils for the quadrupole magnets were produced in Turkey, and sextupole magnets are being produced in Cyprus and Pakistan. Israel is producing the power supplies for the magnets. Iran, Pakistan and Turkey have provided CERN with personnel for the assembly process.

Zehra Sayers, a biophysicist at Turkey’s Sabanci University and chair of SESAME’s scientific advisory committee, said she was moved to tears when she saw the magnet assembly for the first time.

“It was a bit emotional for me,” Sayers said. “It is important for me what we leave the next generation.”

Eliezer Rabinovici, an Israeli physicist and a vice president of the SESAME council, said he, too, was quite moved when he was able to touch the magnets at CERN. “It gave me some hope for the human race,” he said.

The need for an international synchrotron light source in the Middle East was first recognized more than 30 years ago by Pakistani Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, one of the fathers of the Standard Model of particle physics. In 1995, Arab, Israeli and Western scientists gathered in the Egyptian resort of Dahab to discuss scientific cooperation in the region and dream of a regional center of scientific excellence. In 1997, Herman Winick of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California and Gustav-Adolf Voss of Germany’s DESY lab suggested building a light source in the Middle East using components from a soon-to-be decommission facility in Berlin. The idea gained traction and in May 2002, the Executive Board of UNESCO approved establishment of the new facility under UNESCO auspices. It was decided to build a completely new main storage ring, with more than double the energy that would have been possible by upgrading the decommissioned Berlin facility. SESAME’s permanent council was established in April 2004.

Funding has been a continuing challenge since most of the SESAME members have small science budgets and face other pressing issues such as the huge influx of refugees into Jordan. But with additional $5 million voluntary contributions from Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey (and an expected contribution from Egypt), most of the money required to bring SESAME into operation is available. Llewellyn-Smith said the first beams could be operating by October or November.

SESAME will start with two beam lines, according to Sayers. One will be an x-ray fluorescence line with a program anchored in materials science and archaeology; the other will be an infrared beam line with a research program that includes environmental and life sciences.

There is expected to be a user community of more than 300 academic and institutional researchers from the region, and in April the project leaders will request the first proposals from corporate researchers, Llewellyn-Smith said.

Gihan Kamel, a lecturer in physics at Egypt’s Helwan University and an infrared beamline scientist for SESAME, said the project already has had benefits for some young scientists. She said a Palestinian graduate student who did measurements related to SESAME’s infrared beamline was able to obtain user time at a synchrotron facility in Italy as a result.

Llewellyn-Smith said that SESAME, once operating, will not only provide a state-of-the-art facility for Middle East researchers, it also will open access for them at other facilities around the world.