The microscopic structure of high-temperature superconductors has long puzzled scientists seeking to harness their virtually limitless technological potential. Now at last researchers have deciphered the cryptic structure of one class of the superconductors, providing a basis for theories about how they manage to transport electricity with perfect efficiency when cooled, and how scientists might raise their operating temperature closer to the climes of everyday life.

This goal, if realized, could make an array of fantastical-sounding technologies commercially viable, from power grids that never lose energy and cheap water purification systems to magnetically levitating vehicles. Scientists believe room-temperature superconductivity would have an impact on a par with that of the laser, a 1960 invention that now plays an important role in an estimated $7.5 trillion in economic activity.

“In the same way that a laser is a hell of a lot more powerful than a light bulb, room-temperature superconductivity would completely change how you transport electricity and enable new ways of using electricity,” said Louis Taillefer, a professor of physics at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec.

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