In “Arabian Nights,” the memorable folktale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is famous for its magical phrase, “open sesame,” which unlocks the entrance to a cave full of gold. In the Middle East today, the acronym SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is making headlines for its potential to unlock an era of golden opportunities for science, diplomacy and peacebuilding in one of the world’s most conflict driven regions.
Located about 20 miles from Jordan’s capital Amman, SESAME’s treasured walls house the Middle East’s first synchrotron light-source laboratory; a 133-meter circumference particle-accelerator built to capture the capabilities of synchrotron technology. Throughout the world, over 60 synchrotron facilities in various locations have consolidated themselves as burgeoning research hubs. In recent years, synchrotrons have proven indispensable to the scientific community with four Nobel Prizes in Chemistry already awarded to date for related research.
Experiments conducted at SESAME will facilitate research across a wide spectrum of fields, through the hard and soft sciences to archaeology and anthropology. Medicine, healthcare, the environment and agriculture are just some of the areas open to collaboration at SESAME, as regional scientists from the consortium’s nine member countries – Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey – come together to fuse their experience and expertise. On January 12 2017, the CERN Press Office proudly reported that for the first time, “A beam circulated in the pioneering SESAME synchrotron.” Even brighter news is that the facility is set for inauguration on May 16, in the presence of the King of Jordan.
SESAME opens our imaginations to a vision long in the making, originally conceived of in the aftermath of the 1994 Oslo accords (between Israel and Palestine), it draws parallels to the CERN project born in Geneva during the tensions of the Cold War. Since its inception, building scientific and cultural bridges in the region have stood at the heart of SESAME’s ethos: To act as a catalyst for peace in an environment conducive to creating, inspiring and nurturing scientific breakthroughs and diplomatic relations; essentially catapulting the Middle East towards the forefront of scientific research while bridging together divergent ideologies and cultures.
SESAME became a fully independent intergovernmental organization in 2004, after being formerly established under the auspices of UNESCO. Over the past decade, SESAME has built its network through regular meetings and discussions of research proposals, which has seem its community grow to over 200.
Synchrotrons function by accelerating electrons to almost the speed of light in order to create ultra-bright light radiation, which is channeled down ‘beamlines’ to instruments designed for advanced imaging research. As more beamlines are added over time, the number and diversity of research projects will also increase. At the same time, as discussed in 2013 by research scientist Sanghamitra Majumdar from the Chemistry Department of the University of Texas, beamlines also develop improved “analytical versatility in terms of focusing optics, detector technologies, incident energy, and sample environment,” which strengthens the investment merits of SESAME.
Advanced imaging technologies at SESAME will enable researchers to study ancient materials that can shine a brighter light on the relationship between objects, technology and people, illuminating aspects of shared cultural heritage. Whether it’s understanding fragments of ancient artifacts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or interpreting complex virus structures; at the synchrotron, scientists from the Middle East can thrive in a united atmosphere – enjoying the benefits of a machine that is several thousand times more powerful than a microscope.
As Majumdar et al. explain, “The non-destructive nature, low detection limit and high sensitivity of synchrotron techniques make it the state-of-the-art technology in the field of environmental studies.” Turning to the problem of air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, scientists are currently exploring novel ways of trapping toxic gases. One possibility discussed by researchers at the United Kingdom’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire is to use a “metal organic framework” (MOFs) composed of molecules that together form a cage-like shape. Scientists compare these microstructures to chemical sponges: they absorb certain gases and keep them locked away inside. There is similar potential to investigate related methods at SESAME – if our regional scientists can join the climate change adaptation game sooner rather than later, the future of the Middle East may prove cleaner and more secure.
With any kind of material under synchrotron study, an extended timeframe is needed in order to see how changes occur over months and years, and to assess the impact levels. When it comes to the application of municipal wastewater biosolids to agricultural land, there is much debate among environmentalists due to the varying levels of metal contents. As discussed by Prof. Donner Erica of the University of South Australia, “Such materials could contain metals that are harmful to the environment and human food chain, and when associated to soil could significantly alter soil chemistry, even at trace amount.” Synchrotron processes enable for greater magnification into the association of trace metal components and allow for better analysis of soil behavior mechanisms under changing environmental chemical conditions.
Getting SESAME up and running has been an uphill battle, but the hopes of scientists and regional representatives in the Middle East are now finally being realized. The inauguration ceremony is just around the corner and diplomatic and scientific representatives of SESAME’s member states, including Israel, as well as representatives from UNESCO, the European Union, and related scientific communities will be attending the event. It will mark a watershed moment in the history of scientific diplomacy in the region, as the vision to facilitate peace through scientific collaboration above political differences materializes.