Research as a peace project

SESAME synchrotron in Jordan ready to start

The laws of particle physics apply regardless of place and time, but the laws can’t be explored or their applications studied equally well in any location. Particularly in poorer countries, cost-intensive research projects face big challenges. Against this background, there is a ray of hope that the first Synchrotron in the Middle East for the production of high-brilliance X-ray radiation, called SESAME, will be launched during summer 2017. Switzerland has contributed to the success of this project.

In December 2016, over 100 future SESAME users met in Jordan to discuss SESAME's future research program.
Image: Caraban Gonzalez, Noemi

The 'Synchrotron Lichtquelle Schweiz' (SLS) is a large research facility at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), a Swiss federal research institute in Villigen (AG). The plant went into operation in 2001. Since then, the experiments conducted at the SLS have enabled several thousands of scientific publications in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and materials science. The Indian-American structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, used the highly brilliant X-ray light of the SLS to investigate ribosomes completing their work in the cell nucleus in real time.

Pulses of intense X-ray light can be generated with synchrotrons. The much smaller wavelengths of X-ray radiation compared to normal light makes it possible to investigate small structures that are not accessible to light microscopes. In order to obtain suitable X-ray light of high intensity and suitable wavelength, electrons in a synchrotron are held on a circular path and at high energy. Specially arranged dipole magnets, located in alternating order in north-south orientation, bring the electrons into an oscillating path. The electrons achieve transversal acceleration and emit synchrotron light. The configuration of several short dipole magnets in succession is called a wiggler (or undulator). The highly brilliant X-ray light is bundled, guided to experimental sites and used by researchers for their experiments.

Storage ring with a 133 meter circumference

For Switzerland, with its highly developed research standards, it is virtually self-evident to have first-class research facilities such as the SLS. In poorer regions of the world, on the other hand, financial resources and a suitable academic environment are sometimes lacking. To date, there has been no a synchrotron available to researchers in the Middle East - a region with around 350 million inhabitants.

This is will change: In the summer of 2017, the first Synchrotron of the Middle East will be established in Allan, 35 km northwest of the Jordanian capital of Amman. The research facility is called SESAME, an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. In mid-January, the SESAME synchrotron successfully sent the first particle beam into the 133-meter-long storage ring. Further test runs with multiple particle beam sequences will follow before the synchrotron reaches an operating power of 2.5 GeV.

Swiss components and knowledge

SESAME was set up under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). SESAME member states are Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Cyprus. The list makes it clear that in this case, sometimes politically hostile states can team up for major scientific projects. Drawing a comparison to CERN, after the end of the Second World War, CERN also brought together previously hostile states in the spirit of science. Now, former CERN directors Herwig Schopper and Chris Llewellyn Smith have provided their time and expertise to help SESAME get on its feet. They also led the specially established SESAME Council (Council) and continue to do so.

Switzerland is not a member of SESAME, but Swiss contributions have made SESAME possible. For example, PSI provided a wiggler, which in the new facility in Jordan finds good use in a 'Powder Diffraction Beamline'. PSI also developed, the so-called timing system - supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation with 100,000 francs. The PSI spin-off Dectris donated a Pilatus detector. "PSI directors Ralph Eichler and Joel Mesot have always supported SESAME, and several PSI experts were there to advise the project and help with the training of scientists," says Frithjof Nolting, Head of Laboratory Synchrotron Radiation-Condensed Matter (LSC) at PSI.

Furthermore, the Swiss civil engineer dipl. Ing. ETH / SIA Ueli Schurter contributed his knowledge, after the SESAME project in 2014 almost ended in catastrophie: At that time, the roof of the SESAME building collapsed following a heavy snowfall in the city of Allan, which is situated at an altitude of about 1000 meters. "The participants were tremendously lucky, because the collapsing roof was stopped by a concrete pillar," says Schurter, "so no one came to harm and the plant under construction remained untouched." Schurter, then co - owner of the engineering firm Höltschi & Schurter (Zurich) and retired today, was commissioned with three other foreign experts to clarify the causes of the accident and to supervise construction of the new roof.

Open career prospects

SESAME is back on track. In the coming months the first scientists will arrive in Allan to carry out their research projects there. Between the experiments, they will rest and relax in a cafeteria that has been financially supported by the Swiss Physical Society (SPS). SPS vice president Hans Peter Beck justifies the financial contribution: "The support of SESAME is very important for several reasons: to promote science and international cooperation; to build a culture of scientific curiosity and research in the Middle East; for the promotion of peace. The project in Jordan is designed to give future scientists and engineers in the Middle East a professional perspective. However, many more people will benefit from SESAME because the project also directly or indirectly supports industry and the economy of the participating countries. "

Author: Benedikt Vogel

  • In December 2016, over 100 future SESAME users met in Jordan to discuss SESAME's future research program.
  • In 2014, the roof of the SESAME hall collapsed under the weight of snow – neither persons nor the synchrotron were harmed.
  • In December 2016, over 100 future SESAME users met in Jordan to discuss SESAME's future research program.Image: Caraban Gonzalez, Noemi1/2
  • In 2014, the roof of the SESAME hall collapsed under the weight of snow – neither persons nor the synchrotron were harmed.Image: Ueli Schurter2/2


  • Elementary particles
  • Particle Physics