SESAME: A Scientific Step Forward

Jordan has never excelled at scientific study. But a newly revamped, first-of-its-kind research facility could change that.

By Elisa Oddone

When discussing Jordan’s efforts to develop a knowledge-driven economy, the important role research and development can play is too often overlooked in favor of highlighting the latest hip Internet startups.

But as surprising as it may seem, important scientific work is being carried out in the Kingdom. For the latest evidence, look no further than the cutting-edge research facility—the first of its kind in the region—being renovated and upgraded in the town of Allan, some 35 km northwest of Amman.

The revamped $100 million center, set to be launched by 2016, is called Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, or SESAME for short. The joint venture by scientists and governments of the region is modeled along the lines of world-class research centers like the CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Originally built in 2009, the center will house a device that emits electromagnetic radiation dubbed synchrotron light, which, when bounced off materials, reveals more about their microscopic structure. The light emitted by the device, with wavelengths ranging from infrared radiation to x-rays, is produced by shooting electrons at nearly the speed of light for several hours round the center’s 133 meter-long, ring-shaped tube. The emitted light is eventually collected by optical systems connected to the ring, allowing multiple experiments to be carried out simultaneously.

Scientists specializing in disciplines spanning medicine to archaeology will now have a powerful electron microscope on their doorstep, and won’t have to travel outside the region to pursue their research.

“This machine can be described as a very big and rather expensive light bulb,” said Giorgio Paolucci, scientific director at SESAME. “We produce light or x-rays in a very controlled environment, allowing us to study any kind of structure spanning atoms, molecules, viruses, ancient artifacts, and new industrial material. Its applications are only limited by imagination.”


Giorgio Paolucci, Scientific Director at SESAME

Already equipped with an old model of a German accelerator from a Berlin laboratory where Paolucci started his career more than two decades ago, SESAME’s existing laboratory is currently undergoing a huge expansion for a launch set for the end of next year.

If all goes as planned, its opening will allow Middle East scientists to realize an aspiration that dates as far back as the 1980s. “The old machine has been rebuilt in Jordan only to be used to pre-accelerate the electrons. To meet researchers’ needs, a completely new storage ring has been designed by SESAME’s 40-scientist staff,” the Italian scientist said, explaining that some of the main components are currently being built in CERN and laboratories between Italy, France, and Germany.

Attributing their wide impact across the scientific spectrum to economic benefits, many of the rapidly emerging economies, including Brazil, India, and Singapore, have built their own synchrotron light sources. Jordan has decided to follow suit.

The light produced at the facility can be used for structural molecular biology by distilling the proteins’ mechanisms at the atomic level and providing guidelines for developing new pharmaceuticals, a field of pivotal importance for Jordan’s economy.

Scientific findings could provide fertile soil for medical and energy breakthroughs.

Synchrotron sources also offer tools for environmental studies, tests of materials, and archaeological sciences. The light it produces has recently become a core element for developing new smart materials, which are products with characteristics that react to changes in their environment.

Egyptian nuclear engineer and SESAME Administrative Director Yasser Khalil said his staff was trying to rejuvenate regional interest in the field by attracting researchers from across the Middle East.

“As more beamlines are built, the number of [researchers using the facility] is expected to grow to 1,000 or more, this will consequently tackle the brain drain in the scientific sector witnessed across the region,” Khalil said.


Yasser Khalil, Egyptian Nuclear Engineer and SESAME Administrative Director

Members of the project’s council also include Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Iran, and Pakistan. External parties from France, Italy, Russia, and the United States, among others, will act as observers to the experiments, help develop technology, and train staff.

“Providing an opportunity to overcome some of the hostility between the nations in the region is one main idea behind this project,” Khalil said. “We want to use science to promote intercultural dialogue within the Middle East. Scientists from across the region will rub shoulders at SESAME while carrying out research and experiments together.”

In light of its geographical position and accommodating entry procedures, Jordan has been chosen as the center’s headquarters.

The Jordanian government’s willingness to provide land for such a space holds huge benefits for both the scientific community as well as the local economy, as the research center will be launching new projects on a regular basis, potentially generating hundreds of jobs inside the Kingdom.

Data have also showed that general economic growth follows the establishment and expansion of any scientific research center like Jordan’s facility.

In light of the large number of professionally trained technicians in the region, scientists at SESAME are confident that companies in high-tech or high-precision mechanics will open Middle Eastern labs in the future.

“There will be a growth of the number of people coming to Jordan, and local companies will start producing parts for the scientific instruments,” Paolucci said. “It is not something that will happen in the next few years but instead will take some time due to the complexity and expertise necessary to build such an industry.”

Private companies are also expected to start commissioning SESAME to carry out experiments. But involving the private sector might take a long time as it is hard to explain how companies can benefit from the center’s programs and identify specific market needs.

“This could take around 10 years, but it will surely have positive economic effects,” Paolucci said. “Once the machine is working, people will start coming, and we will do our best to involve companies and get their samples analyzed.”

But trust is needed to lure a business-minded private sector into the laboratory.

“To work with a specific company you need to know as much as possible about their processes, which means to know their secrets,” Paolucci said. “Human relations and trust count more than legal agreement in these cases, especially when one talks with top-notch tech and chemical companies and businesses working with new materials. But I saw this happening in several labs around the world and I am sure this will also be the case in Jordan.”