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An experiment at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory provided the first fleeting glimpse of the atomic structure of a material as it entered a state resembling room-temperature superconductivity – a long-sought phenomenon in which materials might conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency under everyday conditions.

Researchers used a specific wavelength of laser light to rattle the atomic structure of a material called yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO. Then they probed the resulting changes in the structure with an X-ray laser beam from the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

They discovered that the initial exposure to laser light triggered specific shifts in copper and oxygen atoms that squeezed and stretched the distances between them, creating a temporary alignment that exhibited signs of superconductivity for a few trillionths of a second at well above room temperature – up to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). The scientists coupled data from the experiment with theory to show how these changes in atomic positions allow a transfer of electrons that drives the superconductivity.

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