SESAME: a bright hope for the Middle East

22 July 2015

The story of the Middle East’s first light source.

Synchrotron-light sources have become an essential tool in many branches of medicine, biology, physics, chemistry, materials science, environmental studies and even archaeology. There are some 50 storage-ring-based synchrotron-light sources in the world, including a few in developing countries, but none in the Middle East. SESAME is a 2.5-GeV, third-generation light source under construction near Amman. When it is commissioned in 2016, it will not only be the first light source in the Middle East, but arguably also the region’s first true international centre of excellence.

The members of SESAME are currently Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey (others are being sought). Brazil, China, the European Union, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US are observers.

SESAME will: foster scientific and technological capacities and excellence in the Middle East and neighbouring regions, and help prevent or reverse the brain drain; build scientific links and foster better understanding and a culture of peace through collaboration between peoples with different creeds and political systems.

The origins of SESAME

The need for an international synchrotron light-source in the Middle East was recognized by the Pakistani Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, one of the fathers of the Standard Model of particle physics, more than 30 years ago. This need was also felt by the CERN-and-Middle-East-based Middle East Scientific Co-operation group (MESC), headed by Sergio Fubini. MESC’s efforts to promote regional co-operation in science, and also solidarity and peace, started in 1995 with the organization in Dahab, Egypt, of a meeting at which the Egyptian minister of higher education, Venice Gouda, and Eliezer Rabinovici of MESC and the Hebrew University in Israel – and now a delegate to the CERN and SESAME councils – took an official stand in support of Arab–Israeli co-operation.

At the request of Fubini and Herwig Schopper, the German government agreed to donate the components of BESSY I to SESAME

In 1997, Herman Winick of SLAC and the late Gustav-Adolf Voss of DESY suggested building a light source in the Middle East using components of the soon-to-be decommissioned BESSY I facility in Berlin. This brilliant proposal fell on fertile ground when it was presented and pursued during workshops organized in Italy (1997) and Sweden (1998) by MESC and Tord Ekelof, of MESC and Uppsala University. At the request of Fubini and Herwig Schopper, a former director-general of CERN, the German government agreed to donate the components of BESSY I to SESAME, provided that the dismantling and transport – eventually funded by UNESCO – were taken care of by SESAME.

The plan was brought to the attention of Federico Mayor, then director-general of UNESCO, who called a meeting of delegates from the Middle East and neighbouring regions at the organization’s headquarters in Paris in June 1999. The meeting launched the project by setting up an International Interim Council with Schopper as chair. Jordan was selected to host SESAME, in a competition with five other countries from the region. It has provided the land and funded the construction of the building.

In May 2002, the Executive Board of UNESCO unanimously approved the establishment of the new centre under UNESCO’s auspices. SESAME formally came into existence in April 2004, when the permanent council was established, and ratified the appointments of Schopper as president and of the first vice-presidents, Dincer Ülkü of Turkey and Khaled Toukan of Jordan. A year later, Toukan stepped down as vice-president and became director of SESAME.

Meanwhile, the ground-breaking ceremony was held in January 2003, and construction work began the following August. Since February 2008, SESAME has been working from its own premises, which were formally opened in November 2008 in a ceremony held under the auspices of King Abdullah II of Jordan, and with the participation of Prince Ghazi Ben Mohammed of Jordan and Koïchiro Matsuura, then director-general of UNESCO. In November 2008, Schopper stepped down as president of the Council and was replaced by Chris Llewellyn Smith, who is also a former director-general of CERN. In 2014, Rabinovici and Kamal Araj of Jordan became vice-presidents, replacing Tarek Hussein of Egypt and Seyed Aghamiri of Iran.

SESAME users

As at CERN, the users of SESAME will be based in universities and research institutes in the region. They will visit the laboratory periodically to carry out experiments, generally in collaboration. The potential user-community, which is growing rapidly, already numbers some 300, and is expected eventually to grow to between 1000 and 1500. It is being fostered by a series of Users’ Meetings – the 12th, in late 2014, attracted more than 240 applications, of which only 100 could be accepted. The training programme, which is supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, various governments and many of the world’s synchrotron laboratories, and which includes working visits to operational light sources, is already bringing significant benefits to the region.

Technical developments

In 2002, the decision was taken to build a completely new main storage ring, with an energy of 2.5 GeV – compared with the 1 GeV that would have been provided by upgrading the main BESSY 1 ring – while retaining refurbished elements of the BESSY I microtron to provide the first stage of acceleration and the booster synchrotron. As a result, SESAME will not only be able to probe shorter distances, but will also be a third-generation light source, i.e. one that can accommodate insertion devices – wigglers and undulators – to produce enhanced synchrotron radiation. There are light sources with higher energy and greater brightness, but SESAME’s performance (see table) will be good enough to allow users – with the right ideas – to win Nobel prizes.

Progress has not been as rapid as had been hoped, owing mainly to lack of funding, as discussed below. The collapse of the roof under an unprecedented snowfall in December 2013, when it even snowed in Cairo, has not helped. Nevertheless, despite working under the open sky throughout 2014, the SESAME team successfully commissioned the booster synchrotron in September 2014. The beam was brought to the full energy of 800 MeV, essentially without loss, and the booster is now the highest-energy accelerator in the Middle East (CERN Courier November 2014 p5).

The final design of the magnets for the main ring and for the powering scheme was carried out by CERN in collaboration with SESAME. Construction of the magnets is being managed by CERN using funds provided by the European Commission. The first of 16 cells was assembled and successfully tested at CERN at the end of March, and installation will begin later this year (CERN Courier May 2015 p6). If all goes well, commissioning of the whole facility – initially with only two of the four accelerating cavities – should begin in June next year.

The scientific programme

SESAME will nominally have four “day-one” beamlines in Phase 1a, although to speed things up and save money, it will actually start with just two. Three more beamlines will be added in Phase 1b.

One of the beamlines that will be available next year will produce photons with energies of 0.01–1 eV for infrared spectromicroscopy, which is a powerful tool for non-invasive studies of chemical components in cells, tissues and inorganic materials. A Fourier transform infrared microscope, which will be adapted to this beamline, has already been purchased. Meanwhile, 11 proposals from the region to use it with a conventional thermal infrared source have been approved. The microscope has been in use since last year, and the first results include a study of breast cancer by Fatemeh Elmi of the University of Mazandaran, Iran, with Randa Mansour and Nisreen Dahshan, who are PhD students in the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Jordan. When SESAME is in operation, the infrared beamline will be used in biological applications, environmental studies, materials and archaeological sciences.

An X-ray absorption fine-structure and X-ray fluorescence beamline, with photon energies of 3–30 keV, will also be in operation next year. It will have potential applications in materials and environmental sciences, providing information on chemical states and local atomic structure that can be used for designing new materials and improving catalysts (e.g. for the petrochemical industries). Other applications include the non-invasive identification of the chemical composition of fossils and of valuable paintings.

It is hoped that macro-molecular crystallography and material-science beamlines, with photon energies of 4–14 keV and 3–25 keV, respectively, will be added in the next two years, once the necessary funding is available. The former will be used for structural molecular biology, aimed at elucidating the structures of proteins and other types of biological macromolecules at the atomic level, to gain insight into mechanisms of diseases to guide drug design (as used by pharmaceutical and biotech companies). The latter will use powder diffraction for studies of disordered/amorphous material on the atomic scale. The use of powder diffraction to study the evolution of nanoscale structures and materials in extreme conditions of pressure and temperature has become a core technique for developing and characterizing new smart materials.

In Phase 1b, soft X-ray (0.05–2 keV), small and wide-angle X-ray scattering (8–12 keV) and extreme-ultraviolet (10–200 eV) beamlines will be added. They will be used, respectively, for atomic, molecular and condensed-matter physics; structural molecular biology and materials sciences; and atomic and molecular physics, in a spectral range that provides a window on the behaviour of atmospheric gases, and enables characterization of the electrical and mechanical properties of materials, surfaces and interfaces.

The main challenges

The main challenge has been – and continues to be – obtaining funding. Most of the SESAME members have tiny science budgets, many are in financial difficulties, and some have faced additional problems, such as floods in Pakistan and the huge influx of refugees in Jordan. Not surprisingly, they do not find it easy to pay their contributions to the operational costs, which are rising rapidly as more staff are recruited, and will increase even faster when SESAME comes into operation and is faced with paying large electricity bills at $0.36/kWh and rising. Nevertheless, increasing budgets have been approved by the SESAME Council. As soon as the funding can be found, a solar-power plant, which would soon pay for itself and ease the burden of paying the electricity bill, will be constructed. And SESAME has always been open to new members, who are being sought primarily to share the benefits but also to share the costs.

So far, $65 million has been invested, including the value to SESAME of in-kind contributions of equipment (from Jordan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, the US and Switzerland), cash contributions to the capital budget (from the EU, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Italy), and manpower and other operational costs that are paid by the members (but not including important in-kind contributions of manpower, especially from CERN and the French light source, SOLEIL).

SESAME is a working example of Arab–Israeli–Iranian–Turkish–Cypriot–Pakistani collaboration.

Thanks to the contributions already made and additional funding to come from Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey, which have each pledged voluntary contributions totalling $5 million, most of the funds that are required simply to bring SESAME into operation next year are now available. At the SESAME Council meeting in May, Egypt announced that it will also make a voluntary contribution, which will narrow the immediate funding gap. More will, however, be needed, to provide additional beamlines and a properly equipped laboratory, and additional funds are being sought from a variety of governments and philanthropic organizations.

The ongoing turbulence in the Middle East has only had two direct effects on SESAME. First, sanctions are making it impossible for Iran to pay its capital and operational contributions, which are much needed. Second, discussions of Egypt joining other members in making voluntary contributions were interrupted several times by changes in the government.


SESAME is a working example of Arab–Israeli–Iranian–Turkish–Cypriot–Pakistani collaboration. Senior scientists and administrators from the region are working together to govern SESAME through the Council, with input from scientists from around the world through its advisory committees. Young and senior scientists from the region are collaborating in preparing the scientific programme at Users’ Meetings and workshops. And the extensive training programme of fellowships, visits and schools is already building scientific and technical capacity in the region.

According to the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, there is a perpetual battle between the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the brain. Several times during its history, SESAME has faced seemingly impossible odds, and pessimists might have given up. Luckily, however, the will prevailed, and SESAME is now close to coming into operation. There are still huge challenges, but we are confident that thanks to the enthusiasm of all those involved they will be met and SESAME will fulfil its founders’ ambitious aims.

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