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An electron ruler gauges crystal flaws

As pinches of spice enliven a dish, sprinkles of disorder can perk up otherwise perfect crystals.

The presence of a few odd atoms, for instance, can stretch or scrunch a crystal's lattice, introducing desirable electronic, optical, or magnetic traits.

A new technique developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., now permits scientists to discern lattice shifts as small as a hundredth of an atom's width. That's about a tenfold improvement over previous techniques.

The ability to better measure those shifts may lead to new insights about physical properties that emerge from the displacements. Among such properties is high-temperature superconductivity, or the ability to conduct electricity resistance-free at temperatures well above absolute zero (SN: 11/18/00, p. 330: Little Big Wire). More detailed data about crystalline imperfections also may help scientists develop new materials, says Brookhaven's Yimei Zhu.

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