By Taylor Luck

AMMAN – The Middle East’s first particle accelerator project is looking to succeed where many initiatives have failed – to unite people across the region in a common cause.

Synchrotron light for Experimental Science and Application in the Middle East (SESAME) is accelerating its efforts to open a world of opportunities to young researchers.

The Jordan-based initiative, which was launched by UNESCO in 2004, has attracted professors, researchers and students from across the region including Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Israel, in the cause of advancing science.

During the opening of SESAME’s ninth user’s conference in Amman on Saturday, organisers announced that with recent accomplishments, including the installation of the first Microtron beam and the June completion of the device’s shielding wall, the project has “passed the point of no return”.

“SESAME promises to transform the science map of the Middle East through offering scientists from the region the opportunity to perform cutting-edge research,” said Abdul Halim Wreikat, Jordan’s SESAME council representative.

Despite the existence of over 60 synchrotron centres in the developed and developing worlds, there is yet to be a single synchrotron in the whole of Middle East and North Africa, which, according to experts, represents a major obstacle to scientific progress in the region.

Khaled Toukan, SESAME director and chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, said the centre is set to facilitate regional advancements in a host of fields ranging from medicine to archaeology.

“The use of synchrotron technology has become a cornerstone of scientific research and the centre’s establishment will enable students and researchers from across the region to meet their full potential,” Toukan told The Jordan Times.

Modelled off of CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, the SESAME centre is set to be fully operational by 2015, offering classes and lectures as well as facilitating scientific experiments for students and profossers from across the region, according to organisers.

Once operational, the synchrotron stands to help researchers such as Maryam Izadkheh, who, due to her Iranian citizenship, faces difficulties in travelling to the West to continue her studies in the application of synchrotron technology in breast cancer treatment.

“In Iran we have no synchrotron technology, which makes research in medical physics nearly impossible,” the 26-year-old University of Esfahan graduate said on the sidelines of the conference.

Egyptian student Mohammed Esserine, who has spent the past two years at the American University in Cairo studying how to use synchrotron light technology for a wide array of physics experiments, is also another potential SESAME beneficiary.

“Nowhere in the Arab world or even in Israel do they have this technology,” Esserine noted.

University of Jordan graduate Asal Ahmad said a lack of experience in synchrotron light applications has long put Arab, Turkish, Israeli and Iranian scientists at a disadvantage in the international job market.

“Before SESAME, the only choice for us to continue our studies was to go abroad, which many of us cannot afford,” Ahmad noted.

Chris Llewellyn Smith, former head of CERN and SESAME council president, said one of the keys of the initiative has been the ability for participants to check politics at the door and take part in scientific discovery.

“The idea is to get young people working together and have them realise that at the end of the day we are all the same,” Smith said.

“Some researchers study the theory of alternative universes – seeing people from across the Middle East getting along and working together certainly feels like one,” he added.

The potential of SESAME to boost mutual cooperation at the scientific level has garnered the initiative international acclaim, with the programme receiving support and recognition from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), CERN, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and European governments.

Despite the excitement surrounding the project, SESAME’s future is far from certain.

The initiative requires a further $37.8 million in funding in order for the synchrotron to come online, according to SESAME officials, while the global economic downturn combined with regional uncertainty has hindered Middle East countries’ financial commitment to scientific research.

Jordan, Iran, Israel and Turkey have pledged to provide $1 million in annual voluntary funding over the next five years, a move SESAME organisers hope other countries will follow.

Meanwhile, the IAEA is considering extending funding, while UNESCO is continuing its support of the project, according to Toukan.

With scientists and students gathering for ongoing regional conferences and workshops four years ahead its first experiment, officials say the region’s first particle accelerator is already speeding up more than just scientific progress.

“The future generation of scientific leaders are making connections today that as they start their careers will help regional cooperation in the future,” Smith said.