Middle East synchrotron on the lookout for funds

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Jordan facility needs final donations to construct machine.

The Middle East's first synchrotron facility, a collaborative effort intended to promote peace through international scientific cooperation, formally opened its doors on 3 November in Allan, Jordan. But unless the project can plug a €15-million (US$19-million) shortfall, the machine's completion risks being stalled.

Following a flurry of behind-the-scenes discussions, officials are confident that they will find the money. The facility's inauguration at Al-Balqa Applied University may have helped: when ministers and other representatives finally saw the buildings, and the beamlines and other machinery being installed, it had "a big psychological impact," says Herwig Schopper, who retired as head of the project council on 4 November.

Open SESAME? The facility in Jordan awaits further funding. Credit: Maciej Nalecz, UNESCO

The idea of a synchrotron as a bridge for peace in the Middle East was first proposed in 1997; two years later, SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) launched as an autonomous international research organization, under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is modelled on CERN, Europe's particle-accelerator centre near Geneva, Switzerland. Jordan won the bid to host it.

Most of SESAME's technical equipment comes from donations from facilities being replaced or upgraded elsewhere. Its 0.8 gigaelectronvolt (GeV) injector system comes from BESSY I in Berlin, Germany, and entire beamlines from the Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source in the UK, the Laboratoire pour l'Utilisation du Rayonnement Électromagnétique (LURE) in Orsay, France, and the Swiss Light Source in Villigen. In addition, powerful magnets and other equipment are being loaned by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, both in California. SESAME is supposed to be completed by 2011, with a price tag of roughly $100 million, which includes labour and the value of donated parts, says Chris Llewellyn-Smith, the new head of the SESAME council.

But instead of the 1 GeV machine initially proposed for the site, SESAME members decided several years ago to opt for an ambitious 2.5 GeV machine, comparable to new third-generation sources elsewhere. The project members — Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey — agreed to pay for the increase in operational costs, which will rise progressively from $1.3 million to $5 million annually over the next four years. The problem is funding the capital costs of the 2.5 GeV storage ring.

Several possible solutions seem to be emerging. Jordan is said to be offering a loan to prevent delays. As the host country, it has already contributed more than $25 million in land, buildings and overheads, and cannot donate more directly without effectively making SESAME a national project.

Sources close to the discussions say that Iran is contemplating offering to build those parts of the ring for which it has the technical capacity. This would represent a big reduction in the €15-million gap. Qatar, a small but wealthy country, seems likely to join the project, as does Iraq, and possibly other countries in the region. But the wealthiest country in the area, Saudi Arabia, has so far declined to join, because it does not collaborate with countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations — and that includes SESAME member Israel.

Llewellyn-Smith says he will also approach philanthropies and wealthy individuals. "It's obvious to anyone who goes to SESAME now that this is going to happen," he says. "We need to ensure it's finished quickly, and that the scientific project is first-rate."

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Butler, D. Middle East synchrotron on the lookout for funds. Nature 456, 291 (2008) doi:10.1038/456291a

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