The Middle Eastern Particle Accelerator Is Gearing Up, Handmade Parts and All

Less than 70 particle accelerators exist in the world, nearly all in Europe and the United States. In May, Jordan got one. The idea of building this kind of research facility in the Middle East was an outgrowth of the Oslo Accords. Will it draw Israeli scientists?

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Vacuum chamber being installed in SESAME's dipole magnet
Vacuum chamber being installed in SESAME's dipole magnet     Credit: SESAME
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

JORDAN — Particle accelerators are at the forefront of research in a vast range of fields. From biology to archaeology to new materials, particle accelerators can help us gain deeper understanding of the atomic structure of materials. They can help us understand which elements bond with which within molecules. However, these machines are also the most expensive scientific instruments in the world today. Fewer than 70 exist, nearly all in Europe and the United States.

History was made in Jordan on May 16, 2017, when the research center with the first particle accelerator in the region — Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, better known as SESAME — was festively inaugurated in a ceremony that included Iranian and Israeli scientists. A call for proposals was issued about two months later, following which scientists from the region submitted ideas for experiments to be performed in the accelerator.

The synchrotron is helping a museum in Iran determine the best way to preserve ancient manuscripts; to detect the original colors of artifacts from Petra, Jordan; and to analyze bones dated from 5,000 and 13,000 years ago from Cyprus, Syria, Iran and Iraq in order to detect differences in living conditions among ancient peoples in the regions, and to compare with these locales today.

The center’s directors and the member nations are still working on improving the accelerator’s capabilities and attracting more researchers. Yet despite progress, the accelerator’s future is not assured. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if it can draw Israeli scientists, or will remain nothing more than a symbol of overcoming political obstacles for the sake of science.

Eliezer Rabinovici, a physics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the founders of the project, says the idea of building this kind of research facility in the Middle East was an outgrowth of the Oslo Accords.

The first meeting, which took place in the Egyptian town of Dahab in the Sinai, was attended by more than 100 scientists from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Morocco, and representatives from countries around the world that supported the idea. It was held in November 1995 and was sponsored by Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak.

While geopolitical developments in the region have sometimes slowed the project, they have not torpedoed it, Rabinovici says. If anything the scientific possibilities offered by the facility led Iran, Turkey and Pakistan to join the project in the late 1990s.

Ground was broken on the center in 2003, on a plot of land 40 kilometers northwest of Amman that was donated by the Jordanian government, though financial and other obstacles held things up. In fact, the building housing the accelerator was completed long before work started on the machine itself.

During a visit in October by a delegation from the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, the facility’s directors said that some of the member states found it difficult to meet their financial commitments to the project. (Full disclosure: This writer was a guest of the Helmholtz Association.)

The only members that do make payments on time are Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Turkey, says Khaled Toukan, the director of SESAME and the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. Iran hasn’t paid for years because of the sanctions, he added.

According to Israel’s Science Ministry, Israel paid $500,000 to $1 million a year in membership dues to the research center, in addition to $5 million it gave to upgrade the accelerator at its beginning. During a recent visit, the Germans donated 3.5 million euros.

Handmade parts

Indeed, the most striking part of the SESAME tour was the accelerator’s budgetary difficulties, and the impressive efforts of the scientists building and operating it to overcome them. SESAME was supposed to be based on a 40-year old German accelerator but it was replaced with a more advanced model. The project directors realized, says Rabinovici, that the scientific value of an accelerator that old would be dubious, and the project bogged down until they could find money to build parts that would meet contemporary standards.

Toukan says that at a visit by more than 40 Nobel laureates to the facility in 2009, one asked when the project directors planned to declare its failure.

These travails did not kill the project, but the delays, and improvisations, never stopped.

One key part arrived completely by chance as a donation from a research facility in Switzerland, says the scientist responsible for one of the research stations at the accelerator, Messaoud Harfouche. He had worked at the Swiss institution once, and when he heard the Swiss were planning to upgrade their facility, he suggested, based on the minimal information he had about SESAME at the time, that they donate the old equipment to the Middle Eastern accelerator.

Harfouche, who is from Algeria, arrived with the technology and stayed with SESAME. Now he employs the training he acquired over the years to build, with his own hands, various optical components for his research station, instead of purchasing them ready-made, to save on costs.

Despite relying on donations and handmade parts, SESAME’s scientific director Giorgio Paolucci takes pride that, according to various measures, the capacities of the accelerator are not inferior to parallel accelerators in Europe.

As the electrons whirl

He showed the German visitors data on research proposals submitted by scientists from the area.

Electrons began to whiz around SESAME’s ring a year and a half ago, but the first proposals were only accepted in April, after a year of inspections and trial runs. The first round brought 50 research proposals, with none from Israelis, Paolucci says. The second brought 100, with three from Israeli scientists.

Asked why there are so few Israeli proposals, some of the German professors present in the room suggested that Israeli scientists are well connected and can work at other particle accelerators around the world. Among others, Israel is a member of one of the premier accelerators in the world, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. Paolucci himself answered that he is confident that as SESAME gains new capabilities in the coming years, Israeli scientists will also discover the potential of this facility located so close to home.

An achievement for diplomacy

Particle accelerators of SESAME’s ilk are not used like the famous particle accelerator in Switzerland, to collide particles of matter. The Jordanian and similar accelerators, most of which are “only” as big as a modest football field, are actually used to produce beams of special quality and intensity.

Accelerators like SESAME, which are called synchrotrons, accelerate electrons to a high speed, then force them to change direction as they move around the accelerator’s ring (using extremely powerful magnets), resulting in beamlines, which are used for various research purposes.

Today, two beamlines are in operation at SESAME. Prof. Yuval Golan of Israel's Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, the chairman of the Committee for Synchotron Radiation of the National Academy of Sciences, says the first beamline is being used to measure the absorption of X-rays by samples of material being studied. This spectroscopic test can reveal the atomic composition of the material and its chemical environment, and reveal which elements are connected to other elements within the material.

Golan, a researcher in the Department of Materials Engineering, says that he and his team are developing new semiconducting materials: the spectroscopy enables them to discover the nature of the bonds between the different atoms in new materials, based on analysis of the waves that the material absorbs and does not absorb.

The second beamline, says Golan, uses low-energy infrared light. One use is to understand how materials used in night vision sensors behave, for instance. Again, this beam can help understand the molecular structure of materials, for instance, figuring out the original color of the murals in Petra.

A third beamline is still in development and should help characterize huge molecules, mainly proteins.

“About half of the synchrotron users in Israel work on macromolecules,” says Golan. “It will be extremely useful for Israeli researchers, who are waiting for it with bated breath.”

The fourth beamline will be used to disperse X-rays at small angles, to study relatively large molecular structures such as DNA, lipids (huge fat molecules) and complex liquids. This beamline is also expected to be popular with Israeli researchers.

So are Israeli researchers likely to use SESAME? Some suspect Israeli researchers are spoiled and prefer European facilities; Rabinovici says he has observed the Israelis are concerned about staying in Amman. However, the Italian government donated more than a million euros to build a guesthouse for scientists within the accelerator compound, and it should be ready by the end of the year.

Rabinovici recognizes that the project is shy of the standards of European and American accelerators, but he is confident that even now, many researchers who can’t get a time slot for their experiments at more advanced accelerators can benefit from its capabilities. Also, scientists at the beginning of their careers can learn how to integrate the synchrotronic research into their work.

Golan, whose team submitted one of the Israeli proposals, says that Israeli scientists will certainly continue to ply the European accelerators because of their quality, the technical support they receive there, and the fertile scientific environment. But he hopes that after the first Israeli experiments are conducted at the accelerator, the ice will be broken and more will realize they have a serviceable accelerator near home. It depends on SESAME’s capacity to evolve and build the infrastructure needed for Israeli research.

“They consult with us,” he says, and adds that the next two beamlines will be built based on the Israeli recommendations.

Another thing likely to influence the accelerator’s future and Israeli involvement there is geopolitics. Not all researchers will feel comfortable in Jordan, Golan suspects. Although the accelerator’s construction is presented as a unique achievement for science and diplomacy, if anything overdone publicity could cause scientists to shy away. In any case, he remains optimistic and asks that people not jump to conclusions about the facility’s future, which is still being run in. “The wheel needs to begin to turn,” he says. “When Israeli scientists begin to use the accelerator, it will happen quickly.”

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