The Internet has been buzzing for the past two weeks over claims of a new superconducting material – LK-99 – that functions at room temperature. If true, it would be a ground-breaking discovery with applications ranging from semiconductors to energy grids and even spark the development of any number of theoretical devices like hoverboards and handheld quantum computers.
A superconductor is a material that can transmit electricity without resistance or altering its nearby magnetic field. Resistance is usually expressed as heat, so a device that could process limitless energy without getting hot would be a game-changer, to say the least.
But is it real?
History is rife with claims of all types (does anyone remember cold fusion?), and this would not be the first time someone has claimed to have developed a superconductor that functions in ambient conditions.
At the moment, however, this claim has tantalized the popular imagination. All that’s left is for someone to either confirm or deny that this new material is, indeed, a superconductor.
Here is what we know so far.
What is LK-99?
South Korean scientists have been working on room-temperature superconductors since the late 1990s. In late July, two papers were published out of the country’s Quantum Energy Research Center claiming that their new material – LK-99 – a fusion of lead, oxygen, phosphorus, and copper performed as a superconductor at room temperature and under normal pressure.
A number of superconducting materials already exist, but they require high pressure and/or extremely cold temperatures to function – on the order of -200°F. As such, their applications are limited to MRI machines and quantum mainframes.
This new material would bring superconductivity into the normal world, where it could be used almost anywhere.
Reasons for Doubt
But as The Verge noted recently, there are a number of problems with the way the Korean team announced its discovery, and this has the scientific community questioning its validity.
First, both papers appeared as preprints, that is, before they’ve been subject to peer review. Secondly, there are discrepancies between the two papers, the seriousness of which is still under debate. And there are also signs of discord between the Korean researchers, with one claiming that his team’s paper was uploaded without his consent.
Other troubling aspects of the two papers are the lack of key test results, most importantly, a heat anomaly test that could confirm its ability to act as a superconductor. Also perplexing is the scale used to determine resistance, which lacks the accuracy to determine if the resistance being reported is actually zero or just very, very low.
The scientific community has good cause to be skeptical about claims of room-temperature superconductivity. It was only in 2020, after all, that similar claims emerged out of the University of Rochester (NY), which were later retracted when the results could not be duplicated elsewhere.
And in fact, various materials have been put forth as either room-temperature or high-temperature solutions since the 1990s, none of which proved successful.
A Solid Video Proof?
The one thing the Koreans do have is a video showing LK-99 levitating, but it is unclear whether this shows actual superconductivity or not.
Many materials, including copper, are diamagnetic and can float when placed into a magnetic field. Only through rigorous testing can a material be proven to have the zero electrical resistance of a superconductor.
The holy grail of scientific proof would be other teams replicating LK-99 and achieving the same results, but so far, that has not happened. A team from the National Physics Laboratory in India released its own preprint describing tests on the material it developed, but they have not observed any superconductivity.
Beihang University’s School of Materials Science and Engineering also failed to detect superconductivity in its sample and concluded that it was a paramagnetic semiconductor – a relatively weak form of magnetism.
None of these results are conclusive, of course. The samples might not be exact, or the tests may have been flawed. But if continued experimentation exhibits equally disappointing results, LK-99 could very well go the way of Edsel.
Positive Thinking: The Very Bright Future with LK-99
For the moment, however, most of the buzz surrounding the discovery seems centered on all the intriguing possibilities it puts on the drawing board. Energy costs, for one, could drop considerably with no waste due to resistance and no practical limit on how far it can be transported.
Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains and other means of transportation become the norm rather than the exception. Supercomputing is pushed out of the elite scientific realm and into the average home or business. Fusion reaction might even become a viable energy source.
Superconductivity could also usher in a new era of scientific discovery, leading to new types of telescopes, geologic sensors, and magnets that could spur research on diagnostic tools, advanced materials, and condensed matter. We could also see all-new means of propulsion that could take mankind farther and faster into space.
Nor should all of the green advantages be overlooked. Less resistance means less waste, which means greater power from energy generation – increasing the viability of wind and solar while also boosting the yield from fossil fuels to produce more wattage with lower carbon emissions.
Without concrete evidence to determine what exactly LK-99 is and is not, it is easy to fantasize about all the wonderful things it can do. But unless and until it is thoroughly disproven, the fact remains that room-temperature superconductivity at ambient pressure is theoretically possible.
If this material does not do the trick, there is no reason to think the real solution is right around the corner.