A particle accelerator in the Middle East

THE hills 30km north-west of Amman, Jordan’s capital, are home to a miracle of scientific diplomacy called Sesame. Proposals to build this device, the world’s most politically fraught particle accelerator, date back nearly 20 years. The delay is understandable. Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority, three of the project’s nine members, are better known for conflict than collaboration. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, but both have worked together on the accelerator. As well as Jordan, the other members are Bahrain, Egypt and Pakistan. Nonetheless, Sesame, a type of machine called an electron synchrotron, is about to open for business. The first electrons are expected to complete their initial laps around its 133 metre circumference ring this month.

Electron synchrotrons are smaller cousins of proton synchrotrons such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), near Geneva. Instead of probing the frontiers of physics, they probe the structure of materials. Corralled by giant magnets, the electrons travelling around them emit radiation ranging in frequency from the infrared to X-rays. This can be used to look at anything from metals to biological tissues. Synchrotron radiation is more intense than other available sources, letting researchers collect data faster and from smaller samples. It can also penetrate matter more deeply, and resolve smaller features.

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