Al Salt, JORDAN — In a region in turmoil, an unprecedented joint venture of scientists and governments is working together at a new particle accelerator that operates under the motto “science for peace.”
Jordan’s Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, Sesame for short, is the first of its kind in the region. The machine is a 437-foot-long ring where electrons move at nearly the speed of light for several hours and generate beams of electromagnetic radiation that are used in myriad experiments.
The facility took two decades to build, but that is not the only thing that’s special about it. Sesame overcame inconsistent funding on top of the region’s infamous instability. Modeled after CERN, the world-class European Organization for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, the facility’s regional joint venture of scientists and governments spans Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey. Diplomatic relationships among these countries have been traditionally strained, if nonexistent—and yet, Sesame pools these countries’ scientific resources under one roof.
The facility’s name alludes to “open sesame,” the incantation that opens a cave of treasure in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, though the accelerator unlocks the microscopic structure of matter instead of a mythical hoard.
For example, Finnish bioarchaeologist Kirsi Lorentz has just completed a week of tests on one set of ancient human remains in a bid to understand more about how people in the Middle East lived over 3,000 years ago. Lorentz, an assistant professor at Nicosia’s Cyprus Institute, shows samples in the palm of her hand. “This is a unique opportunity to study remains without transporting them elsewhere, which is not desirable considering their fragility and the lengthy permit procedures,” she says.
In January, Lorentz joined forces with Sesame’s beamline scientist Messaoud Harfouche to map metal elements inside the fragments and narrow down their date and origin, among other details.
“We examined a tooth and a small bone fragment that bore similar greenish hues on their surfaces that previous studies identified as copper,” Harfouche says. “When we analyzed the copper’s structure with the X-ray absorption fine structure technique (XAFS), we noticed a clear difference between the samples. This meant the metal must have penetrated from the outside” through something like poisoning or contamination. Based on the individual’s sex and burial customs, Lorentz says the metal found in the remains could have come from artifacts like weapons, jewelry, personal ornaments, or metal vessels.
Meanwhile, Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, called Iran a “terrorist regime” and is currently calling on European countries to follow the U.S. administration in tearing up a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran. Protests have been mounting in the occupied West Bank and violence flared up along the Israel-Gaza border after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, leading to the killing of dozens of Gazans as the U.S. officially opened its embassy in Jerusalem in May. At the same time, talks to reunify the divided island of Cyprus collapsed last year, marking the end of negotiations many hoped could heal over 40 years of conflict.
Pakistan is often at odds with Iran due to its alliance with Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s archenemy in the region. Also, Iran and Egypt cut diplomatic ties in 1979 when Cairo sheltered Teheran’s ousted Shah. And even though Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel over two decades ago, diplomatic crises are still commonplace.
Yet at Sesame, a collaboration of scientists hailing from all these countries, broke through.
A Daredevil Venture
The diplomatic anomaly has its origins in the early 1990s. Back then, Sergio Fubini, an Italian theoretical physicist, and his Israeli colleague Eliezer Rabinovici, a professor of physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dusted off their old idea of creating a scientific hub to boost Arab-Israeli cooperation.
“We had a feeling people can bring change to this world and that it was our duty to contribute to it,” Rabinovici says. “After the signing of today’s vilified Oslo agreements, we thought it might have been the right time to test this plan. So we started to think about how to do it. Science has the great advantage of sharing a common language. This creates an opening.”
Wrought by political tension and scant resources, several years passed before the initial proposal began to take shape.
But in 1999, they had a stroke of luck.
Germany was in the process of closing one of its second-generation synchrotron light sources. Herwig Schopper, CERN’s former director general and head of an initial technical committee for Fubini’s and Rabinovici’s project, asked Berlin to donate the machine to the Middle East. Scientists agreed to re-use its injector and later update the main ring.
“I even went on national TV to get the machine,” Schopper, 93, says. “Back then, a local chemist had contacted the German government questioning its gift to a politically unsafe region. His take was that scientists could use it to produce uranium and plutonium to build a nuclear warhead.”
But Schopper says this machine would take hundreds of thousands or even billions of years to produce such a weapon.
“In the end, my opponent had to give in, and we obtained the machine,” he says.
Still, the project needed a home. Scientists of every nationality had to be able to access the facility, and the team still had to find space and money for its construction.
Though over ten countries from the Middle East and North Africa submitted proposals, Jordan was the only one that could meet both conditions. But the government dragged its feet on submitting an official letter of intent.
On the last day of a make-or-break visit to the kingdom in 2000, Schopper sought the help of Isa Khoubeis, a former Jordanian physics student of his who had become the vice president of Jordanian technical institute Al Balqa University.
On short notice, Khoubeis organized a dinner for Schopper to meet university president Khaled Toukan and Maurizio Iaccarino, the assistant director-general for science at UNESCO, Sesame’s first backer.
“Dinner was almost over when young prince Ghazi bin Mohammad, a key advisor to the king, joined us after his training wearing a track suit,” Schopper recalls. “He listened carefully before calling the Royal Court and scheduling a meeting with King Abdallah the following day.”
Toukan, today’s chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and a previous minister, remembers the monarch immediately agreeing to be part of the project and offering a site. “I recall him signing an official letter reading ‘Jordan would join SESAME’. It came from a type machine. Computers were still rare back then,” he says.
Construction on Sesame’s shell began in 2003 in the governorate of Salt, overlooking the West Bank, and ended five years later. The initial budget only included resources for manpower, electricity, and a small amount to update the German device.
But it became immediately clear that if Sesame wanted to become a top-notch third generation synchrotron, it needed an entirely new storage ring instead of a revamped one.
“When I came in, I realized that costs had been seriously underestimated,” says Chris Llewellyn Smith, former CERN director general and successor to Schopper as president of Sesame Council. “This may have been a good thing. If people had realized how expensive the project would be, it would probably never have got started.”
A breakthrough happened when Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey agreed to pay $5 million a piece on top of their annual contribution to bring the project to the next level.
Though Iran’s payment couldn’t be processed because of the country’s sanctions and Egypt’s sudden revolution put previous agreements on hold, the project still managed to collect $15 million. “It then became much easier to go outside to possible donors, the European Union in particular, and ask them for further funding,” Llewellyn Smith says. The bloc eventually provided five million euros for magnets via its European physics research center.
“We signed an agreement with CERN,” Toukan says. “Their scientists helped us procure parts for the ring and tested them before shipping to Jordan. They looked over the design, helped finalize it, and trained young Sesame scientists during residencies in Switzerland.”
The ring’s installment started in 2016 and its first photons came out a year later in November. That moment, scientists present at the inauguration say tears filled their eyes.
“The performance was very close to the one registered in other established labs worldwide,” says Giorgio Paolucci, Sesame’s scientific director for the past four years and a seasoned researcher whose stints include several European synchrotrons.
“The international community used to look at Sesame as a mere fantasy, but we have shown that despite all the difficulties, we can actually produce good science,” Paolucci says.
A Scientific Community
To prepare for Sesame’s opening, scientists from the region have been gathering in so-called users’ meetings since the early 2000s to get acquainted with the potential of such a machine.
“We worked on building a scientific community first,” says Turkish scientist Zehra Sayers, 2017 recipient of the prestigious Euroscience Rammal prize for her work as Chair of SESAME’s Scientific Advisory Committee. “Although quite a few researchers didn’t know what a synchrotron was, many showed an immediate interest. Scientists are curious—they want to learn.”
Scientists’ needs also dictated the pace of Sesame’s beamline construction. At full operation, the facility could host up to 28 instruments, each exploiting different parts of the beamline and its emissions. This allows different experiments to be conducted simultaneously.
French scientist Paul Dumas, a pioneer with about 30 years of experience on infrared spectromicroscopy beamlines, provided support with the design, construction, and eventually staff training on the upcoming machine.
Widely used in medical diagnostics and cancer tests, its potential is limited only by imagination. Applications span everything from chemistry and archeology, to material science and space physics.
Working hand-in-hand with a group of engineers and Sesame’s Egyptian beamline scientist Gihan Kamel, Dumas and his team have just managed to squeeze the beamline into a more constrained space following the redesign of the ring. The device began operating in late April.
“Kamel played a pivotal role,” Dumas says. “She’s becoming an expert in this facility and knows how to conduct experiments on this beamline. She will in turn train others, thus helping build expertise and knowledge in the region.”
The first female scientist in the lab staff, Kamel has already started to nurture a new generation of scientists through internationally-backed fellowships at the synchrotron.
Hend Al Shahed, a 26-year-old recipient from the Palestinian city of Nablus, is working with Kamel on the lab’s conventional infrared and X-ray device researching Palestinian soil components for her master’s degree.
Hurdles for Palestinian researchers are myriad, ranging from underfunded universities, travel obstacles (both inside and outside the country), and limited access to Israeli universities, Shahed says centers like Sesame are crucial for local scientists looking for hands-on opportunities.
“My professor suggested I relocate to Europe, but my family didn’t allow me because our society is still very conservative when it comes to allow a woman travelling on her own,” Shahed says. “But when I found the announcement for a four-month fellowship at Sesame, I immediately applied since it takes me four hours to cross into Jordan and reach the center.”
Of the 22 students in Shahed’s class at the local An-Najah National University, 20 are female.
“This is something new,” she says. “Men can move more freely and pursue their studies abroad or just prefer subjects like engineering or medicine. But today, women are more interested than men to study different kinds of science.”
The types of research groups slated to work at the center are vast. A team from Turkey is set to start 12 rounds of experiments on nanotech materials at Sesame in April. Later, others will focus on cultural heritage research and cheaper, eco-friendly alternatives to the lithium-ion batteries prominent in the computing and auto industries.
So far, the number of experiments has been limited by soaring electricity prices in Jordan, where over 90% of energy is imported. But in a bid to eliminate the bottleneck, in September, Sesame will become the first synchrotron in the world to go green.
A 7.0 MW photovoltaic power station is currently under construction a few miles outside the capital. It promises to cut the center’s energy expenses by two-thirds, significantly reducing the $250,000 monthly electricity bills.
Having weathered storms since its dawn, Sesame is now sailing towards calmer waters. With two additional beamlines on the brink of becoming operational, the center is looking both East and West to expand the diversity of its members.
“It would be very constructive to include the UAE and Bahrain in the project,” says Rolf-Dieter Heuer, today’s Sesame Council President and another former CERN director general. “With the facility up and running and currently delivering science, it will be easier to attract new members. We are eyeing a few countries in North Africa and considering approaching possible European countries.”
Still, reality cannot be ignored.
In an extremely volatile area tangled in regional and international feuds, long term planning has given way to what Heuer calls “optimistic realism.”
“This idea came up 20 years ago and has survived through the ups and downs of the political scene, and unfortunately, there were more downs than ups,” he says. “As long as one is able to keep politics outside Sesame’s gates, the center will continue to grow. In science, we only talk science.”
Photo by Elisa Oddone