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Using laser light to trap atoms in a checkerboard-like pattern, a team led by Princeton scientists studied how resistance -- the loss of electrical current as heat -- can develop in unconventional metals.

The results may help explain how certain types of superconductors made from copper oxides are able to conduct electricity so efficiently. The research was published online Dec. 6 in the journal Science.

Superconducting materials are ones that efficiently transmit electricity without losing any of the current as heat. Because they don't waste electricity, they have the potential to boost the energy-efficiency of the electrical power grid. They may also open up possibilities for new technologies.

"If you want to carry electricity in power lines more efficiently, then improving our fundamental understanding of transport in these materials will have a significant impact on our ability to design better materials," said Waseem Bakr, assistant professor of physics and senior author on the study.

Copper oxide superconductors are prized for their ability to work at relatively high temperatures compared to other types of superconductors. The materials were the subject of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987.

To explore how resistance develops, the researchers created an experiment that involved trapping atoms in an evenly spaced grid made from intersecting laser beams. The resulting structure, called an optical lattice, holds the atoms like eggs in an egg carton or checkers on a checkerboard.

This setup allows researchers to see what is happening between the atoms. Normally this is not possible because the atoms in a solid are tightly packed.

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