NC A&T State University 

By Abebe Kebede
Edited 25th August, 2015

This article was written for online consumption

Abebe Kebede (, NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC, USA.

Sameen Ahmed Khan (, UNAM, Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Azher Majid Siddiqui (, Nuclear Science Center, New Delhi 110067, India

African Physical Society

   Synchrotron Science-South Africa


Africa Synchrotron User Forum
SESAME the nearest synchrotron radiation facility to Africa

1. Introduction

When electrons whirl around in curved paths vigorously enough, they give of energy in the form of peculiarly pure X-rays. The faster they whirl, more the energy they give off and slow down in the process. This interesting physical phenomenon of emission of light (with very special properties) by the whirling electrons is known as synchrotron radiation (SR). The existence and properties of SR were predicted long back in the 19th century even before the discovery of X-rays and it was experimentally observed for the first time in 1947. SR has numerous advantages over the traditional X-ray sources and lasers. The applications of the SR span a wide range of domains in fundamental science (chemistry, physics, biology, molecular medicine, etc.,) applied research (materials science, medical imaging, pharmaceutical Research Development, advanced radiology, etc.,) and industrial technology (micro-fabrication, micro-analysis, photo-chemistry, etc.,). With all its novel properties, one would expect very many SR facilities across the globe, but this is not so, due to the high costs (about several hundred million US$) and more importantly the crucial requirement of the optimum technological expertise.

In the world of SR sources energy is the name of the game; a figure of one thousand MeV (MeV is one million electron volts) is considered a threshold. A listing based on this threshold, has about fifty SR facilities in operation, a dozen under construction and another dozen being planned. In all there are twenty-three countries: Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Ukraine and USA. The region of the Middle East has been just blessed.

2. The SESAME Project

The Middle East Synchrotron better known by the epic acronym SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) is based on the upgraded reincarnation of BESSY-I, which Germany gifted to the region of the Middle East. BESSY-I, a 800MeV synchrotron, fully functioning since 1982 in Berlin, is worth about 60 million US$. SESAME is the first synchrotron source in the Middle East and is to be located in Allaan, about 30km from the capital Amman. It shall serve as a seed for a regional international research centre, open to scientists from any country in the region or elsewhere. Because of this openness, organizers see its potential as not only a world-class research centre, but also as a politically important example of scientific cooperation in this troubled region. Such a Centre has been long overdue and it will be the first one of its kind in the region. The SESAME is envisaged to be a facility similar in aim to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, which brought together numerous scientists from countries that had fought each other during the two World Wars, since its inception in 1954. Let us recall the magic phrase "open sesame" from the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which means: achieving what is normally unattainable!

A controlled dismantling, of BESSY-I was done by experts from Armenia and Russia, with funding from the SESAME Member Countries and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In June 2002, the entire BESSY-I was shipped to Jordan. Now, it shall be upgraded to a new configuration of 2000MeV. On Monday the 06 January 2003, King Abdullah laid the cornerstone for the upcoming International Center. The ceremony was attended by, the UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura. The Centre will be operated and supported by its thirteen Interim Council Members: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey and United Arab Emirates with observer countries including, Armenia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Russia, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and the USA. Several other countries are expected to join this new fount of science and medium of international cooperation. It is hoped that the upcoming centre will be able to mirror CERN in stimulating regional research collaboration. Very much like CERN, SESAME is under the very valuable political umbrella of UNESCO. The broad spectrum of planned research programmes includes: structural molecular biology, molecular environmental science, surface and interface science, micro-electromechanical devices, X-ray imaging, archaeological microanalysis, materials characterization, and medical applications. The installation and upgrading of the synchrotron are estimated at about US$ 20 million. A similar amount is required over the next five years for installing and equipping ten beam lines. The European Commission is assessing the Project. Assuming a positive report it would try to scrape together US$ 6-8 million to upgrade the main machine. Annual operating costs will be about US$ 3.5 million. With the continued progress and support from the SESAME Members and several other sources it is expected that the research programmes will start in 2006.

3. European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

We have described the SESAME Project, which is the nearest facility to Africa. Another example is the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) located in Grenoble, France. Conceived in 1975 and supported by seventeen participating countries, this 6.0GeV synchrotron X-ray source is constantly pushing experimental possibilities to new limits. Each member pays a percentage of the construction and operating costs. Its construction began in 1988 and the first fifteen beam-lines were opened in 1994. The price of construction of ESRF is about 550 million US$ and the current annual budget is 70 million US$. ESRF has forty beam-lines. The 3,000 thousand scientists that use the facility each year carry out research in physics, chemistry, materials and life sciences. ESRF is one of the three most powerful hard X-ray facilities; the other two are: 7.0GeV, Advanced Photon Source (APS) in Argonne, USA and the 8.0GeV, SPring-8 in Japan. It is to be noted that Japan is also home to seventeen synchrotrons situated at ten locations, which is the largest number of synchrotrons for a single country! This is definitely interwoven with the grand industrial success of Japan.

4. Need for the African Synchrotron Research Programme

The African countries do yet not have any SR facility but are actively involved with the other light sources namely the lasers. Here, it would be relevant to mention the African, Laser, Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Sciences Network (LAM) operating under the directorship of Ahmadou Wagué. The LAM Network has 27 Regional Coordinators across Africa and International Contacts in 11 countries outside of Africa. The LAM has held six International Workshop on Laser Physics and its Applications, since May 1991. Another organization is the recently created African Laser Center (ALC). Both the organizations are working to promote the application of laser-based technologies in the fields ranging from the environment to health care. The countries supporting these programmes include, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the USA. The condensed matter physics and materials research in Africa has a very striking similarity with its European and American counterparts. There are active research groups in a broad range of fields from computational materials science to materials for solar energy applications. There are a series of international conferences across Africa, which is another testimony to the fact that there are active Research Groups & Networks.

The numerous research groups in various disciplines across Africa can definitely benefit a lot by employing synchrotrons. The question is not if Africa needs synchrotron radiation sources, but rather how to acquire these sources. It will be difficult for many of the fifty African countries to have synchrotron radiation sources of their own. It is essential to focus on the need to launch the African Synchrotron Radiation Programme (ASRP), which shall assist in coordinating African Participation in SESAME and other synchrotron facilities all over the world. At the same time ASRP can play a pivotal role in creating SR facilities in Africa.

5. Concluding Remarks and Future Outlook

Synchrotron sources have proven to be immensely important research tools throughout the biological, physical and engineering sciences. Synchrotrons breathe technology! The proposed ASRP provides a wonderful opportunity for collaboration and cooperation between scientists and their institutions in countries spread across Africa. Working together on the many common problems that the African countries face, scientists could become the frontline in promoting greater harmony, facilitating a purposeful attack on the formidable development issues faced by the African countries. Cooperative science is a laudable human endeavor and may indeed help the African countries and its people move towards a better future. The world is moving closer, economically, intellectually and scientifically. International facilities similar to SESAME and ESRF can also be created in Africa. Given the cost and the lead-time in designing a new facility, we need to start preparing straightaway. In few years the ASRP will evolve into an African Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ASRF). This will eventually set a trend for several other disciplines such as High-Energy Physics, Space Exploration, Fusion Research, to name a few.

Further Reading

It is beyond the scope of this modest note to describe the numerous science programmes across the African continent. Further information and news can be found at:

African Scientific Network

Copyright 2001