Campus to share expertise with Middle Eastern research center

UC Berkeley plans to share scientific and engineering expertise with the Middle East’s first major international research center, which is a unique collaboration among scientists from many countries in the region, including Iran, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

SESAME building in Jorday

SESAME headquarters in Allan, Jordan.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau last month signed a memorandum of understanding that will encourage collaboration between physicists at UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), an X-ray source now being built in Allan, Jordan, about 20 miles from the capital, Amman. SESAME director general Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, signed the agreement on May 19.

Scheduled to open in 2015 or 2016, SESAME is being developed under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and is modeled after the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). With an electron energy of 2.5 GeV (gigaelectron volts), SESAME is comparable to the Advanced Light Source (ALS) at LBNL (1.9 GeV), which generates high-energy X-ray beams. The synchrotron X-rays will be used to explore the microscopic internal structure of materials ranging from superconductors to nanomaterials, large biological molecules to micromachines, and archeological materials to medical devices.

“It is important for Berkeley to get involved in projects that encourage peaceful interactions between countries that otherwise are in conflict,” said Birgeneau. “Science can be a pathway toward understanding between nations.”

On its website, SESAME notes that it will “build scientific and cultural bridges between diverse societies, and contribute to a culture of peace through international cooperation in science.”

Joining 60 other light sources worldwide

Interestingly, the leaders of SESAME garnered support for the project from regional governments by referring to a Department of Energy study that Birgeneau led in the mid-1990s, when he was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report outlined the exemplary science that can be done with bright and powerful X-ray sources like SESAME and the ALS.

SESAME member nations.

“SESAME is a breakthrough in many different ways and technically very complicated,” Birgeneau said. “Collaboration will help these countries develop the technical skills needed to operate a third generation machine.”

“This is a way for UC Berkeley to participate in a project that advances science in Jordan in collaboration with many Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and Iran,” said Jonathan Wurtele, a UC Berkeley professor of physics and LBNL scientist who initiated the agreement. “We support SESAME’s goals, and there is good scientific overlap with research on the campus and at Berkeley Lab. It’s a good opportunity for Berkeley to continue and strengthen its international engagement.”

Birgeneau expects that the campus, LBNL and SESAME will exchange scientists – graduate students as well as faculty members – to learn from one another. SESAME scientists have already visited the ALS thanks to some funding from the Department of Energy to retired Stanford University physicist Herman Winick, who first suggested construction of a bright light source in the Middle East in 1997. He even arranged for used equipment to be sent to SESAME from various other light sources, including LBNL.

“The United States has eight light sources, there are 60 around the world, but none in the Middle East,” said Winick, who formerly was assistant director of the synchrotron light source at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Palo Alto. “This project is my passion and I’m very gratified to see it coming to be. SESAME has a site, a building, a staff of 35 people and the involvement of nine countries. It’s very exciting.”

Light sources like SESAME have boosted the economies of many developing countries, he noted, and could do the same for the Middle East.

The SESAME members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.