Wel-known accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, smash subatomic particles together to study their properties. But there is another group of accelerators where electrons don´t collide, instead they are kept circulating through a ring-shaped vacuum tube, called a storage ring. While they are racing around this ring they produce intense radiation.
These accelerators, called synchrotron light sources, are the workhorses for a large number of scientific investigations, for example, the study of the chemical structure of proteins.
The instruments are, in fact, much more than simple light sources. They can produce light, or radiation, in a wide spectrum of wavelengths, ranging from x-rays through ultraviolet and visible light to infrared light. Another property is that the light beams synchrotrons produce are very fine, but very powerful at the same time, making them suitable for probing the structure of matter. They are used by scientists working in physics, materials science, chemistry, the life sciences and medicine, and environmental science.
Synchrotron light sources are large, complex and expensive. More than 60 of these machines, all located in rich countries, are used worldwide by more than 30,000 scientists, but there are still too few of them to give all these scientists a chance to use the light beams for their research. "Even European users do not always get "beam time", says physicist Hafeez Horaani, a researcher at the National Center for Physics in Islamabad. For researchers from the Middle East, the situation is far worse. No synchrotron light source is presently available in the Middle East, forcing local scientists to make expensive trips abroad to do their experiments.
In 1997 the Middle East Scientific Cooperation based at CERN proposed the creation of a synchrotron facility in the Middle East. The project, called SESAME (Synchrotron light for experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) was first led by an Interim Council established in 1999 by Unesco, and was replaced by the current Council on 15 April 2004 The decision to build the machine was taken by the Unesco Executive Board in 2002.
Jordan was selected for the site. "Jordan is a stable, neutral country, and expressed much interest in the project," says Hoorani, who is the Scientific Director of the project. Jordan also contributed the land and the building housing the synchrotron. The Members of SESAME are currently Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.
Construction of the facility started in 2003, and in December 2011, at a SESAME Council meeting in Ankara, Hoorani could report that the electron source was completed and operational. The booster synchrotron, which accelerates the electrons before they enter the main storage ring, will be completed at the end of 2012. Funding of the project is an ongoing process. Germany contributed by donating components from BESSY, a decommissioned synchrotron in Berlin. The European Union has already contributed €3.5 million while the member states of SESAME have all pledged further contributions of up to €3.8 million each for the construction of the main storage ring. The first beams will become available to the scientific community in 2015.
There is no doubt that the machine will foster research in the Middle East. "This project is already helping to stop the brain drain, and scientists are returning from abroad," reports Hoorani. It is also stimulating interest in science, and not only among young people. "SESAME brings science into the agenda of politicians," says Hoorani. He compares the impact of SESAME to that of CERN when it played a role in increasing post-war unity between the European countries. "Just as CERN did in 1954, SESAME brings nations together in the common pursuit of science—it is a project of science for peace," says Hoorani.