Regional news

Crystallography in Morocco

[schematic map]About 500 permanent Moroccan researchers use the techniques of X-ray crystallography, Scanning Electron microscopy (SEM), and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) to characterize materials. They represent 20% of all researchers in the physical and chemical sciences. The majority of these researchers received training in crystallography in foreign laboratories, especially in France. These researchers work in about 50 laboratories in 23 universities, schools of engineering, and institutes of technology.

In university laboratories, the techniques are used as a tool for routine investigation to check the purity of synthesized compounds and to characterize their reactivity and surfaces. These techniques also allow crystal chemical characterization, single-crystal structural determination, and analysis of thin films. In chemistry, crystallography remains a speciality of inorganic chemists. Only recently have organic chemists and biochemists adopted diffraction as a technique complementary to their conventional techniques (NMR, Mass spectrometry). They use X-ray analysis for structural studies and the purification of natural products. Other researchers have developed computer models of crystallographic or defect structures and tested the models using the X-ray, SEM or TEM techniques. Industrial laboratories use these techniques to analyze and characterize the products of mining, cement manufacture, and the processing and production of building materials.

Teaching of crystallography

1,500 students who have basic knowledge in crystallography obtain a Bachelor's degree in physics and chemistry in Moroccan universities. Crystallographic teaching begins in the second year of undergraduate study. The students receive instruction in the theory of crystallography, description of metal and ionic structure, practical exercises, and in the rare cases where instruments are available, diffraction data acquisition.

Crystallographic research

[Mansour Gate] The Bab Mansour (Mansour Gate) is a wall typical of Moroccan imperial cities. The gate is located in Meknes, the capital of Morocco under the reign of the King Moulay Ismael in the 17th century, an ancestor of the current King, his majesty Mohamed VI.
In Morocco 90% of scientific research is conducted in universities and schools of engineering via the individual initiatives of researchers. Research involving crystallography covers a broad range of topics.

Materials growth

  • crystallized or vitreous compounds, oxides, ceramics
  • growth of single crystals by flow method and sol-gel

Surfaces and interfaces

  • treatment of the metal surfaces against corrosion
  • the coating of metal surfaces
  • semiconductor thin films
  • characterizations of crystal defects

Structural studies and modeling

  • structural analysis of minerals
  • properties of surfaces
  • determination of the structure of powders
  • mineralogical characterization and studies of the physicochemical properties of clays
  • electrostatic modeling based on high-resolution X-ray diffraction

Distribution of resources

This diversity of research topics is related to the distribution of human and material resources. 45% of the research groups have 4 members. Only 11% of the laboratories employ more than 10 researchers. More than 50% of the researchers are not affiliated with any laboratory. The absence of coordination at the national and regional level and the limited support allocated to research (0.3% of the G.D.P. which represents 100 million US dollars) are the principal causes of this distribution. Many scientists turn to the foreign laboratories in which they were trained to continue an active research program.

The majority of the research in materials sciences is due to International Programs of Co-operation such as the Integrated Actions (I.A.), Concerted Actions (C.A.), and International Programs of Scientific Co-operation (I.P.S.C.), which account for 58 programs in Marrakesh and 470 in all of Morocco since 1985.

While these programs educate and sustain a potential research capability, they have little relevance to national needs, are seldom sustained, and fail to build the science infrastructure or lead to acquisition of modern equipment needed in the country. They do generate joint publications and doctoral theses (369 at the U. of Marrekesh since 1985).

Research in materials sciences

[scanning electron microscope] B. Tanouti, N.Bouhmaida and A. Thalal (left to right) in the Scanning Electronic Microscope room (the arabic calligraphy at the top of the photo means Electron Microscope).
Research in materials sciences is hampered by outdated equipment, inadequate infrastructure, and the isolation of researchers.

The national laboratories have only ten powder diffractometers, three scanning electronic microscopes and three transmission electron microscopes that are fifteen years old and subject to breakdowns. The age of the equipment makes it difficult to conduct experiments of good quality. In the absence of a single-crystal diffractometer, local crystallographers must depend on foreign partners. Almost all structures determined by Moroccan crystallographers have been solved using powder data.

In addition to the purchase price, the cost of maintenance is also prohibitive. In general, scientific equipment costs 1.8 times more in Morocco than in France. The average budget allocated to a laboratory in Morocco is about 1000 US dollars per annum.

Moroccan research suffers from the lack of a scientific infrastructure. The National Center of the Planning and Coordination of Scientific and Technologic Research (C.N.P.C.R.S.T.) created in 1978 has only recently organized some actions in support of research.

The cost of subscriptions to scientific journals limits the scientific literature. The high cost of the registration fees, transport and living expenses prohibits attendance at scientific conferences. The Internet, now present in almost all the laboratories, helps combat isolation, but restrictions on access to scientific articles and papers is still a problem.

Achievements and outlines

Conscious of the importance of scientific research for the development of the country, Moroccan researchers are working together to improve conditions and increase scientific output.

In the last three years solid state physicists and theoreticians founded the 'Moroccan Society of Statistical Physics' and published an annual review entitled Moroccan Journal of Condensed Matter. Solid state chemists formed a group 'REMCES' (Moroccan Meetings of Solid State Chemistry) and organized 8 international meeting in 17 years. The proceedings of these meetings are published in international reviews such as Journal of Alloys and Compounds, Advanced Materials Research, and Phase Transitions.

A School of Crystallography and the creation of a Moroccan Crystallography Association are being planned.

Research scientists in universities are cooperating in the design and support of shared facilities to achieve shared goals, including:

  • the coordination of research activities and the revitalization of structures already in place,
  • the creation of a national fund for the promotion of scientific research and engineering,
  • the gathering of major equipment in research centers,
  • the creation of an internal communication network to ensure better diffusion of scientific information,
  • the financing of research projects through P.A.R.S. (Programme d'Appui à la Recherche Scientifique) and P.R.O.T.A.R.S. (Programme Thématique d'Appui à la Recherche Scientifique).

International cooperation needed

In spite of the goodwill of all involved, financial support remains inadequate and international collaboration is essential for the development of scientific research in general and crystallography in particular.

We need the assistance of foreign partners and international organizations. Specific needs include:

  • donation of equipment,
  • discounts on major equipment which take into consideration the income per capita of the purchasing countries,
  • assistance with equipment maintenance,
  • creation of regional centers to train crystallographers and technicians,
  • development of regional research programs in connection with African needs to encourage cooperation among African countries,
  • sources of support for traveling and training of crystallographers,
  • reduction of the prices of subscription to the scientific journals and registration for international congresses,
  • support for Moroccan publications to ensure their continued survival.

Conclusion

[A. Thalal] A. Thalal.
As is true of most developing countries, Morocco did not make scientific research a priority. Research in Morocco survived because of individual researchers and international cooperation (particularly with France). The state has recently become sensitive to the importance of scientific research to economic and social development. Although concrete measures have been taken to promote scientific research, they remain inadequate. This effort would benefit from the support of international organizations. Theoretical research in crystallography offers few outlets and does not allow the laboratories to obtain subsidies to maintain their activities. To develop research related to crystallography it is necessary to have very expensive equipment. Research in this field decreases annually. Because of the high cost of equipment many Moroccan crystallographers have changed fields. The teaching of crystallography is likely to decline. The assistance of the international community of crystallographers is needed if crystallography is to survive in Morocco.

A. Thalal, B. Tanouti, N. Bouhmaida and F. Bensamka
Cadi Ayyad U., Marrakesh, Semlalia Morocco