Turning up the Light in Africa

Brilliant minds convened at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble during the entire week of 16-20 November, 2015, to lay the groundwork for an eventual African Light Source (AfLS).  There are approximately fifty light sources worldwide, with some laboratories possessing more than one.  As seen in the figure below, Africa is the only habitable continent in the world without a light source, and addressing this shortcoming is what served as the impetus for the AfLS meeting.

Locations of Light Sources. Credit: lightsources.org.

Locations of Light Sources. Credit: lightsources.org.

Organizers, led by Simon Connell from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, decided that the first AfLS conference should convene at an operating international light source so that participants not familiar with the devices, such as those from government, could tour the facility.  The plans are for most future meetings to convene in Africa.

The first two days of the meeting served as a conference, which consisted of presentations on research at light sources by African scientists and research highly relevant to Africa.  During the last three days, which consisted of a workshop, participants discussed policy and strategy that resulted in the adoption of the following set of resolutions, dubbed the Grenoble Resolutions:

  1. Advanced light sources are the most transformative scientific instruments similar to the invention of conventional lasers and computers.
  2. Advanced light sources are revolutionizing a myriad of fundamental and applied sciences, including agriculture, biology, biomedicine, chemistry, climate and environmental eco-systems science, cultural heritage studies, energy, engineering, geology, materials science, nanotechnology, palaeontology, pharmaceutical discoveries, and physics, with an accompanying impact on sustainable industry.
  3. The community of researchers around the world are striving collaboratively to construct ever more intense sources of electromagnetic radiation, specifically derived from synchrotron light sources and X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs), to address the most challenging questions in living and condensed matter sciences.
  4. The African Light Source is expected to contribute significantly to the African Science Renaissance, the return of the African Science Diaspora, the enhancement of University Education, the training of a new generation of young researchers, the growth of competitive African industries, and the advancement of research that addresses issues, challenges and concerns relevant to Africa.
  5. For African countries to take control of their destinies and become major players in the international community, it is inevitable that a light source must begin construction somewhere on the African continent in the near future, which will promote peace and collaborations among African nations and the wider global community.
Group photo of participants on the workshop. Credit: ESRF.

Group photo of participants on the workshop. Credit: ESRF.

In addition to the resolutions, two important outcomes of the meeting were the adoption of the AfLS Roadmap and the election of a Steering Committee to drive the Roadmap forward.  The Roadmap consists of short-, medium- and long-term goals, starting with the training of large numbers of students, scientists, and technicians in light source science; developing the critical feeder infrastructure within each country that empowers light source research; and ultimately ending with the construction of a light source in Africa.  As for the new Steering Committee, whose members come from all geographic regions of Africa and other parts of the world, those at the meeting designated Simon Connell to serve as its Interim Chair.

One of the highlights of the AfLS meeting was the role that South African researchers and their collaborators at the ESRF are playing in the field of palaeontology.  After the 2008 discovery of the fossil, Australopithecus sediba (Au. Sediba), in South Africa, those researchers have employed advanced X-ray imaging techniques at the ESRF to nondestructively study its brain structure.  Transporting such precious fossils and other artifacts from one country to another far away sometimes has its governmental challenges.  An important role that the AfLS could play is to lower such bureaucratic hurdles.

Several Researcher and Student Participants. Credit: ESRF.

Several Researcher and Student Participants. Credit: ESRF.

A major theme highlighted at the meeting is that a light source in Africa would have a major impact on the search for cures to such deadly diseases as malaria, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis.  The parasites, viruses and bacteria that cause those diseases have many proteins whose structures need to be deciphered to determine targets that drugs can attack, resulting in cures.  The fastest route to ascertaining those targets is via the use of advanced light sources.  Thus, Africa has a vested interest in promoting light source science, especially at a local facility for which it could set the agenda.

Most light sources are owned by one country, but the ownerships of some are shared internationally.  The ESRF is one of the latter.  It is a collaboration of 18 European governments, plus South Africa and Israel, and has been in operation since 1992.  Another example is SESAME, which stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, which is now under construction in Jordan as a collaboration of nine Middle East governments, namely Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, and Turkey.  Scheduled to start research in 2016, SESAME is modeled closely on the high energy physics laboratory, CERN, where researchers discovered the long sought Higgs boson in 2012.  UNESCO serves as the umbrella organization for both SESAME and CERN.  Perhaps an organization similar to UNESCO could play a similar role for the AfLS.  Hopefully, we will know soon.

Sekazi Mtingwa (Credit Makazi Ife Mtingwa)Sekazi K. Mtingwa is an accelerator physicist who is best known for seminal theoretical work on a phenomenon called intrabeam scattering, which sets an ultimate limitation on the performance of most modern accelerators, including synchrotron light sources. He is a founding member of the African Physical Society, International Board of Editors of The African Review of Physics, and African Laser Centre.   He received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the American Nuclear Society, chaired the writing of the Strategic Plan for South Africa’s synchrotron light source user community, retired from MIT in 2012, and is currently a private consultant.


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