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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Open Sesame: A look inside Jordan's high-tech science hub for the Middle East

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian physicist, smiles broadly as she holds up a clear plastic bag containing a tooth.

This molar tooth looks like it could have been extracted from someone's mouth earlier in the day, yet it actually comes from an archaeological site in eastern Iran and dates back 4,000 years.

It is one of scores of samples, from bags of soil to slides on which ultra-thin slices of human breast tissue have been laid, in this room at the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (Sesame) in Jordan.

Dr Kamel is using infra-red (IR) light to carry out a detailed analysis of materials sent by researchers from multiple nations.

Dr Gihan Kamel holds up a 4,000 year-old tooth she is studying at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National
Dr Gihan Kamel holds up a 4,000 year-old tooth she is studying at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National

“We have hair and teeth and bones. The analysis is different for each sample. They want to know what's in this sample. They want to know how to preserve them,” she said.

Graphs on a computer screen show how samples interact with the IR radiation, which in turn indicates their chemical composition, with various peaks and troughs representing proteins, fats and other substances.

When it comes to analysing the breast-tissue slides, the results could improve cancer diagnosis, one among countless areas of science, ranging from physics to chemistry to metallurgy, that could benefit from this particle accelerator.

Located at Allan, 35km north-west of Amman, in a warehouse-type building that overlooks the Jordan valley, the Unesco-supported centre appears slightly out of place nestled among pretty olive groves and the occasional villa.

Sesame in Allan, Jordan, some 35km north-west of the capital. Jacques Herve Fichet / CERN
Sesame in Allan, Jordan, some 35km north-west of the capital. Jacques Herve Fichet / CERN

Inside is the kind of high-tech set-up that brings to mind early James Bond movies.

There is a vast circular apparatus that contains a storage ring, a 133-metre circumference channel along which beams of electrons (negatively charged particles) travel at just under the speed of light. As they circulate and are deflected by magnets, they give off electromagnetic radiation called synchrotron radiation covering a wide spectrum. The various types of radiation, including IR radiation and X-rays, are collected in beamlines leading off from the ring.

An engineer explains how the synchrotron works. Salah Malkawi for The National
An engineer explains how the synchrotron works. Salah Malkawi for The National

There are dozens of synchrotrons around the world, with a few in developing countries such as India and Thailand, but this is the region's first.

Sesame's significance extends beyond the scientific, however, as it is notable for having transcended the Middle East's fractious politics by bringing together, as members, such unlikely partners as Israel and Iran.

Also on boards as members are Cyprus (it was a Cypriot scientist who provided the tooth Dr Kamel has been analysing), Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Numerous other nations have observer status.

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In supporting world-class research, Sesame could help to reverse the brain drain that sees many scientists from the Arab world leave for the United States, Europe and elsewhere, where research is often better-funded and more advanced.

Sesame has been two decades in the making, and reaching where it is today – the facility is in use, but the synchrotron proper is yet to be switched on fully, something set to happen this month – has not been straightforward. Some researchers doubted the project would ever reach fruition.

Khaled Toukan, Sesame's director and a former Jordanian cabinet minister, admits there have “really a lot of ups and downs on the way”.

“The idea came in 1998. It took five years more or less to develop and crystallise. Many wars took place in this region, and the Arab Spring, but every six months we sat and discussed the plan for the next stage,” he said.

The storage ring at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National
The storage ring at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National

Crediting Unesco with a playing a key role in bringing disparate nations together, Herman Winick, a retired professor from Stanford University in the United States involved from the early stages, says it worked because politics was kept out of meetings.

“The rules were very clear: you talk only science,” he said.

In fact, finance has been more of a headache than regional politics.

Members vary in their ability – and willingness – to pay. Bahrain has just been dropped as a member for not contributing, while Pakistan only pays about half of what it supposed to, and Iran will be removed unless it begins making payments. Overall, the centre receives only about half of what it is supposed to from annual membership fees, which are up to $600,000, the amount depending upon variables such as a country's GDP.

A research room at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National
A research room at Sesame. Salah Malkawi for The National

“The facility should have started in 2011/2012 if the financing was in place. [In fact] we inaugurated in May,” said Dr Toukan, who is also chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.

Costing more than $100 million (Dh367 million), Sesame has, despite these problems, been completed thanks to the contributions of members and foreign donors, including the European Union. The UAE was an early financial contributor and some of the equipment is secondhand kit donated by Germany.

Beyond the capital expenditure, Sesame's running costs are eye-watering. Chief among them is electricity, which costs $100,000 a month, a bill that will double when the facility is operating fully. The centre is setting up a solar-power plant at a remote site to produce electricity for the national grid, contributions that will offset the power that Sesame uses. It is hoped the plant will cover 80 percent of Sesame's power costs.

The centre's management hopes that once important scientific findings start spilling out, countries that have kept their distance will come on board as members, improving the finances. Gulf nations such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are among the many that would be welcome to join.

“Once we get photons [particles of electromagnetic radiation] in the beamline they will be encouraged,” said Dr Toukan.

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How does Sesame work?

Synchrotrons involve sending electrons round large circular tubes at just below the speed of light. At Sesame, a microtron (which dates back to the early 1980s and was donated by Germany) produces the electrons before their energy level is significantly increased by a booster synchrotron. They are then sent into the storage ring, which has a circumference of just over 133 metres. They circulate for several hours, completing millions of circuits each second. The electrons emit electromagnetic radiation because some of the energy in their electromagnetic force field is, to use Sesame's term, “shaken off”. Various magnets manipulate the movement of the electrons, which produce different wavelengths of synchrotron radiation that beamlines (each specialised for a particular type of radiation) collect and send, via optical devices, to experimental hutches, where researchers place samples for analysis.