Nonequilibrium phase transitions, which are defined by the formation of macroscopic transient domains, are optically dark and cannot be observed through conventional temperature- or pressure-change studies. We have directly determined the structural dynamics of such a nonequilibrium phase transition in a cuprate superconductor. Ultrafast electron crystallography with the use of a tilted optical geometry technique afforded the necessary atomic-scale spatial and temporal resolutions. The observed transient behavior displays a notable "structural isosbestic" point and a threshold effect for the dependence of c-axis expansion (Δc) on fluence (F), with Δc/F = 0.02 angstrom/(millijoule per square centimeter). This threshold for photon doping occurs at ∼0.12 photons per copper site, which is unexpectedly close to the density (per site) of chemically doped carriers needed to induce superconductivity.
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