Plans Power Up for First African Synchrotron

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Following the 3rd African Synchrotron Light Source Conference last month, plans for a synchrotron on the African continent are beginning to unfold. The African Light Source (AfLS) Foundation, one of several organizations behind the push for a synchrotron light source on the continent, is actively seeking letters of intent from scientists and research organizations to support such a facility. The letters of intent will form part of a conceptual design review for the AfLS. Submissions will close Jan. 31, 2022.

The 3rd African Synchrotron Light Source Conference, a joint event with the Pan-African Conference on Crystallography and the African Physical Society, highlighted the benefits of such a light source for the continent. Africa is the only inhabitable continent without a light source. The absence is cause for researchers based in Africa to seek other facilities to perform research requiring such technology.

“Currently, Africa is losing many of its talented and energetic young scientists to the African science diaspora,” Prosper Ngabonziza of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research wrote in a 2019 article for scientific opinion blog Elephant in the Lab. “The research work that we are doing abroad is not possible with the current research and scientific facilities in Africa.”

In the column, Ngabonziza noted recent positive developments in access to scientific infrastructure for African researchers; however, he wrote, those are mainly suitcase scientist models “in which African researchers travel abroad to use advanced international research facilities.”

“Part of the inspiration for believing that a project of this nature can materialize on the African continent came out of the ability of Africa to build two major telescopes,” said Khotso Mokhele, a professor at the University of the Free State, South Africa, during the African Light Source Conference Ministers Forum on Nov. 17. Mokhele is the former president of the country’s National Research Foundation,

The movement to build a synchrotron is a pan-African effort, Mokhele said, while also highlighting the pan-African nature of South Africa’s other scientific facilities such as the South African Large Telescope.

“The effort hitherto, as I say, has been bottom-up, but now the project has advanced to the point where we now need to have conversation at the top of African politic,” Mokhele said.

Daan du Toit, deputy director-general of international cooperation and resources at the South African Department of Science and Innovation, cited the importance of open science, highlighting UNESCO’s recent recommendation for open science as it relates to the pursuit of a light source on the African continent.

“I think it’s important that we reflect on that recommendation for the purpose of this discussion here because the recommendations of global science very much speak to the enterprise of large-scale research facilities such as light sources or synchrotrons,” du Toit said. “Open in the first instance, inclusive, international cooperations and that is what is at the heart of this initiative where we would really seek to ensure that African scientists can optimally participate in global science by enjoying access to such important facilities such as a light source.”

The light source is also expected to contribute to greater autonomy of African nations by enabling critical research in biology, such as in the study of viruses, said Marcus Newton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Southampton, in his presentation during the African Light Source Conceptual Design Report Town Hall Meeting on Oct. 11. The study of diseases could be addressed through the independent development of drugs, one of the applications of synchrotron research, he said.

“If Africa can develop the drugs in-house, we can of course have more control over this and respond more rapidly to outbreaks,” Newton said.

The light source could also hold implications for international collaboration and diplomacy through the pursuit of common scientific goals, Newton said.

The synchrotron’s construction is expected to cost between $90 million and $150 million, according to a presentation from Rowan University physics professor Tabbetha A. Dobbins during the African Light Source Conceptual Design Report Town Hall Meeting on Oct. 11.

“We think the conceptual design report will be a turning point for near-term future decisions to be made,” Dobbins said.

For more information regarding letters of intent, visit

Published: December 2021
A synchrotron is a type of particle accelerator that uses magnetic fields to steer charged particles, typically electrons or positrons, in a closed, circular or elliptical path. The name synchrotron refers to the synchronization of the accelerating electric field with the increasing particle velocity as they move in a circular path. Synchrotrons are powerful tools used in various scientific and industrial applications, particularly in the generation of intense beams of synchrotron radiation. ...
light source
The generic term applied to all sources of visible radiation from burning matter to ionized vapors and lasers, regardless of the degree of excitation.
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