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The Sun’s new beamlines for a solar synchrotron

Published online 27 February 2019

The Middle East’s collaborative synchrotron, SESAME, has become the world’s first solar-powered accelerator laboratory.

Kristopher James Kent

Caraban Gonzalez, Noemi 
The Middle East’s multinational synchrotron, SESAME, was an ambitious idea. Funded by an unlikely list of countries, some with diminutive science budgets, others with a history of mutual conflict, the Jordan-based laboratory has overcome many hurdles. Khaled Toukan, SESAME’s director, remembers the scepticism the project faced in the early days, including being asked by a Nobel laureate, “When are you going to announce the death of SESAME?”

Despite the doubt, SESAME has just added another factor for regional pride by becoming the first large accelerator facility in the world to meet its energy costs entirely from solar power. 

The inauguration of SESAME’s 6.48-megawatt photovoltaic plant is a matter of environmental diligence and one of survival, says Ercan Alp, the chair of SESAME’s science advisory committee. “It’s actually quite nice because we were running out of money! Jordan has one of the highest electricity tariffs in the world,” he says. In 2018, SESAME budgeted more than US$2 million for electricity costs alone; a figure that would undoubtedly have risen as the facility is expanded in the future.

Synchrotrons are power-hungry facilities that accelerate charged particles around a ring-shaped vacuum chamber, using magnets to focus and deflect the particles’ path. As this occurs, synchrotron light is emitted and directed to beamlines — chambers that focus different wavelengths of light on to a sample to be studied. Synchrotrons allow the versatile study of matter on a tiny scale and are used in a wide range of sciences.

A drawn-out matter

SESAME is a collaborative effort, with the synchrotron’s operations funded by its member countries: Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Its roots date back to 1997 when two scientists from the US and Germany suggested relocating parts of Berlin’s BESSY I synchrotron, which was about to be decommissioned, to build a facility in the Middle East. Should this seed not have been planted, “it’s absolutely clear that SESAME would not exist,” says Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, president of the SESAME Council. In 1999, UNESCO called a meeting that gathered support and started the project in earnest. It would prove to be a landmark case of co-operation in the Middle East. 

Following years of development, the synchrotron switched on its first two beamlines in July and November 2018 and has hosted 23 research groups so far. It’s only now, though, that the operational stage of SESAME is really hitting its stride. Toukan says that they’re weighing the merits of 103 research proposals from both member and non-member states. Existing projects range from studies into battery cathodes, to Alzheimer’s disease, and ancient manuscripts.

Cultural heritage studies into artefacts from the Middle East may be where SESAME finds its niche. Its location offers obvious logistical and political advantages to researchers potentially faced with the idea of shipping the artefacts to the west for analysis. “We put a special emphasis on cultural heritage and archaeological studies,” says Alp.

On paper, SESAME’s members fund the synchrotron with about US$5.3 million. In reality, not all member states’ contributions are paid fully, and so the synchrotron sees approximately three million of this total, says Toukan, highlighting the urgency of their solar plant and the financial burden it alleviates. The saved funds will help SESAME construct new beamlines and increase its research capacity. The first two beamlines — one utilizing X-rays, the other infrared radiation — are currently operational, with Alps saying that they hope to eventually increase this to between 16 and 20 beamlines in total.

SESAME enjoys generous funding from the European Union. Through the Horizon 2020/EU-funded BEATS project, €6 million will go toward funding the construction of a tomography beamline at SESAME. Further support comes from Germany’s Helmholtz institution, which, in 2018, pledged to build part of a new X-ray beamline at the Jordan synchrotron.

Award-winning efforts

Switching on SESAME’s photovoltaic plant comes hot off the tails of another victory. On 15 February, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for Science Diplomacy was awarded to five ‘architects of SESAME’, including Toukan and Llewellyn Smith, recognizing those who played a pivotal role in the genesis of the synchrotron and bringing the players together in pursuit of a common goal. “The award means a lot,” says Toukan. “It means we’ve succeeded despite the skepticism.” 

The synchrotron has come a long way since 1997. “At several times, it wasn’t obvious it would happen,” says Llewellyn Smith. “A rational person might have given up, actually.” Toukan says that the next landmark facing the synchrotron is to have SESAME research published in international scientific journals. “We should see some of this coming by this summer,” he says, adding, “A big burden has been relieved, but there’s a responsibility on those who run SESAME, and on the members of the board, to keep this momentum going.”