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Jordan is on the verge of opening the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East as workers enter homestretch of synchrotron’s construction.


Physics lab aims to bridge political divides in Middle East

MANCHESTER, U.K.—An experiment in science diplomacy is on the threshold of success. Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), an $80 million synchrotron lab in Allan, Jordan, announced this week its first call for research that will be conducted on two beamlines expected to switch on this autumn. Research should start in earnest early next year. 

“The news is that it’s working, against the odds,” says Chris Llewellyn Smith, a physicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and president of the SESAME Council. The project was behind schedule because of political complications—visa restrictions for scientists, for example, and sanctions against Iran, a partner—and a freak snowstorm that collapsed the main building’s roof in 2013. Now, “we are in the final stage,” Eliezer Rabinovici, a theoretical physicist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem said at a 27 July press conference here at the EuroScience Open Forum. “To see dreams become reality, this is a very special moment.”

A synchrotron is an important tool for many fields, as it creates intense beams of light that are used to probe biological cells or materials. There are about 60 synchrotrons in the world; SESAME is the first in the Middle East. Projects envisioned for the synchrotron include analyzing breast cancer tissue samples, studying Red Sea corals and soil pollution, and probing archaeological remains.

The initiative was conceived in the 1990s as a partnership among many countries. Germany donated a big-ticket component: the injector that sends particles into the main storage ring. That project has attracted about $30 million in donations from outside the region, supplementing the construction costs financed primarily by Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Iran has also pledged $5 million, but its contributions have been delayed by sanctions. SESAME’s operating costs are paid for by its member states: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority, and Turkey.    

Smith says the facility is on track for commissioning in December. Two beamlines will be ready this year—for x-rays and infrared light—and two more will be built by 2019. Gihan Kamel, SESAME’s infrared beam line scientist, says researchers from the Middle East have already begun working at the facility, by hooking up detectors and microscopes to lower-power sources at the facility. Once the synchrotron fires up, the resolution and brightness will increase dramatically.   

In the conflict-riven Middle East, security at SESAME is a worry. “There are severe concerns,” Rabinovici says. The lab is building a guest house for visiting scientists inside its perimeter fence. Rabinovici hopes the physics oasis will help ease regional tensions. “We are offering light at the end of one tunnel.”