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Prof. Daniel Zajfman

Cold Ions, Warm Relations

An Israel-German cooperative effort aims to unlock secrets of the chemistry of outer space

Prof. Daniel Zajfman

Prof. Daniel Zajfman

An installation that recreates conditions existing in outer space, the first of its kind in the world, is nearing completion at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, in collaboration with the group of Prof. Daniel Zajfman from the Weizmann Institute of Science. Called a cryogenic ion storage ring (CSR), it will make possible the study of space chemistry and will probe the most basic questions about matter and energy.

Whereas all existing ion storage rings at other institutions around the world operate at room temperature (about 300 degrees Kelvin), the new Heidelberg facility – a 35-meter circular pipe through which charged particles travel at great speed – will operate at 2 degrees Kelvin – in other words, just 2 degrees above absolute zero, the same chilly temperature that prevails in interstellar clouds. The CSR is scheduled to enter operation in 2013-2014.

Zajfman first came to Heidelberg for a short visit in 1990. A postdoctoral fellow in the U.S. at the time, he had learned that the Max Planck Institute had the facilities that would enable him to explore just the kind of physics questions in which he was most interested. Upon joining the Weizmann Institute shortly afterward, he initiated an intensive collaboration with Max Planck scientists that has since resulted in some 50 joint research papers. In 2001 he became an external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, and he served as one of its directors from March 2005 to December 2006, when he became President of the Weizmann Institute.

“If I want to know how a molecule splits, it doesn’t matter if I’m German, Israeli, Italian or Palestinian”

Speaking about the coldest ion storage ring on earth, Zajfman has only the warmest words for his German colleagues. First of all, there’s the professional appreciation. “Without the German know-how and infrastructure,” says Zajfman, “we could never have launched such a project.” Moreover, Zajfman says he has developed strong personal ties with his colleagues: “These people are my friends.” Last but not least, he believes such collaborations have a powerful impact beyond the research: “Science is so international, so objective, that it allows collaboration between people who were once antagonists but are now partners. If I want to know how a molecule splits, it doesn’t matter if I’m German, Israeli, Italian or Palestinian. If you look at where we started off in our relations with Germany, it’s amazing how much has been accomplished in fifty years.”

for more on this collaboration: Prof. Dirk Schwalm


Israel BDS – building dialogue through science – aims to promote the kind of international collaboration that can lead to true understanding between people. Israel BDS stands for the free and open exchange of ideas among scientists everywhere. By reporting on the benefits of Israeli-international scientific research and the web of connections that these scientists create around the world, Israel BDS takes a vibrant approach to highlighting the global necessity of continued international scientific collaboration.