Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 1

Uncharted territory, untapped potential

Middle East on map
These facilities provide a unique platform where scientists from different disciplines work side by side, often interacting directly, to pursue their curiosities in the basic sciences, and research for development applications.
Dr Zehra Sayers
SESAME is a project hoping to harness scientific potential in the Middle East, and unite the region in the process, explains Scientific Advisory Committee Chair Dr Zehra Sayers...

Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) is a third generation synchrotron light source preparing for operation in one of the most culturally rich and at the same time politically troubled regions of the world. In this intergovernmental project Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey are joining forces to build a world-class international research centre in Jordan. The goals of this ambitious and challenging project, which was established under the auspices of UNESCO, are fostering high-quality research in the region and providing an environment where the universal language of science will help people to get to know one another and develop mutual trust.

The annual operating budget of SESAME, currently US$2.3m, is provided by regular annual membership contributions. Additional resources had to be found for capital costs such as that of the building and the new storage ring. Although these proved to be major challenges, one-time voluntary contributions from the members, either in cash or in kind, help to overcome financial difficulties. Further funding is being sought from charitable foundations and from international governmental agencies for completing support facilities, including a guest house and a conference centre.

In a synchrotron light source, energy radiated by electrons, moving in circular orbits in storage rings at speeds close to that of light, is harnessed through experimental stations (beamlines) to visualise objects at atomic resolution, noninvasively map and analyse the chemical composition of materials, and produce large-scale high-resolution images. Applications are in diverse fields, including medicine and drug design, energy, archaeology, and materials and environmental sciences. Synchrotron radiation (SR) facilities have become an essential tool for modern science with more than 60 around the world – but none in the Middle East.

These facilities provide a unique platform where scientists from different disciplines work side by side, often interacting directly, to pursue their curiosities in the basic sciences, and research for development applications. They work with dedication during long data-collection periods, which may be in multiples of 24 hour shifts; they help each other, from one experimental station to another, to overcome technical glitches that may arise in the middle of the night, and above all they speak to each other about their research. In the micro-ecology of the synchrotron, these interactions act like a glue, uniting them in the world of science, and provide on-the-spot training that helps to bring all involved up to the highest level.

The decision to build SESAME was triggered by the gift from Germany of components of the 0.8 GeV BESSY I synchrotron. A milestone in the development of the project was the decision of the Council (the governing body of SESAME) to take up the recommendation of the Beamlines and Scientific Advisory Committees that a brand new 2.5 GeV storage ring be built, and that the microtron and booster synchrotron from BESSY I be upgraded to 22 MeV and 0.8 GeV respectively. This was a clear indication of the determination of the scientists involved to make SESAME a world-class research laboratory.

SESAME, which has a staff of about 35 people including scientists, engineers and administrators, is currently preparing for operation in late 2015. The design of the new storage ring is fully completed and its components are being constructed with the help of scientists from CERN. Engineers and scientists on the SESAME site are designing components, ordering new equipment and testing existing facilities, assembling vacuum and cooling systems, electronics and optical elements, and working on precautions to ensure safe and smooth operation when the machine is fully functional.

In phase I, SESAME is expected to begin operations with seven beamlines. Four of these are expected to be functional at the start up, with the rest being completed soon after. The phase I beamlines were selected at the third Users’ Meeting (2004) based on requests from the users. Some of these beamlines will be built using optical components that, until recently, were in use at SR sources in various parts of the world and have since been donated to SESAME, while others will be built from scratch. The SESAME staff are currently making the necessary calculations to adapt the donated beamlines to the specifications of the new SESAME storage ring, working on the required upgrades of the components received, and ordering components for the new beamlines. In two of the beamlines, radiation will be provided by devices located in the straight sections of the storage that produce even higher intensity beams, making SESAME a competitive ‘third-generation’ light source.

A quick survey of the papers presented at SESAME Users’ meetings (the 10th of which was held in 2012) reveals that materials science, biology and medicine, and atomic and molecular science emerge as priority research areas among the members of the SESAME users’ community. This community derives its strength from several of its scientists who are already users in SR laboratories in different parts of the world, and from the young scientists who are being trained in such facilities with SESAME-channelled funding. Beamline scientists at SESAME also have their own line of research and continue with their projects alongside the designing of beamlines. External users, together with beamline scientists, constitute a strong team to jump-start research at SESAME at the beginning of operations. It is expected that SESAME will also initiate work in areas that can exploit the competitive advantage offered by its members’ geographical locations and its natural resources. These include non-invasive characterisation of cultural heritage material and development of alternative technologies for storage of solar energy. Planning for phase II beamlines, which will make these investigations feasible, is already being undertaken in users’ meetings.

SESAME will be used by scientists based in universities and research institutes in the region. Its ambition is to be internationally competitive and, at the same time, to bring under the same roof the next generation of scientists who, despite the diverse backgrounds and cultures in the region, may together pursue similar goals. The project faces some enormous challenges: from the difficulty of having long-term planning and budgeting in a region where, in recent history, there are but very few examples of such planning, to political instability that is completely beyond the control of the people involved in SESAME. It does have, however, an enormous strength; that it is run by people who can imagine the unimaginable, who are used to running after difficult long-term dreams and who do not believe in borders.

Dr Zehra Sayers
Science Advisory Committee
Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME)

[This article was originally published on 9th April 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 01]


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