Experts are resisting extraordinary claims about room-temperature superconductors. Here’s what the lab results mean and why we need time to figure things out.
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When South Korean scientists reported a possible breakthrough in superconductors in late July, their claims sparked a wave of excitement and skepticism, while researchers around the world scrambled to replicate the experiments.
Such superconductors, which function at room temperature and ambient pressure, are one of the holy grails of materials science, a development that the dreamers claim will maximize the efficiency of our energy grids and accelerate the production of fusion energy, accelerating the advancement of quantum supercomputers , or contribute to a possible breakthrough in the era of ultra-fast transportation.
But for now, the story of the LK-99 superconductor is all about what happened in the lab.
On July 22, the South Korean physicist uploaded two articles to arXiv, a repository for preprint research, of the type that has not yet been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. This is basically like uploading a first draft of your work. The researchers claim they have produced the first room-temperature superconductor with a copper-doped “modified lead apatite structure”, dubbed LK-99.
Part of the “evidence” the team provided was a video showing the compound suspended above a magnet, a key feature of superconducting materials.
This bold claim has caused quite a stir among experts in the field.
“These chemicals are very cheap and not difficult to manufacture,” said Xiaolin Wang, a materials scientist at the University of Wollongong in Australia. “That’s why it’s like a nuclear bomb in the community.”
But what’s happening in this lab in South Korea is just the first step in understanding whether the findings actually have real implications for the technology and its role in our lives. We need more data, so there is reason to be cautious.
How Superconductors Work
A true room-temperature superconductor would be a big deal and attract a lot of attention. Modern materials we use to conduct electricity, such as the copper wires that power our homes, are inefficient. As electrons travel down the wire, they strike atoms of the material, generating heat and losing energy. This is known as electrical resistance and causes up to 10% of electricity to be wasted as it travels through transmission lines to homes. Our electronic devices also lose energy.
However, these losses can be virtually eliminated if the wires and transmission lines are made of superconducting materials. The electrons form pairs as they travel through the material and don’t hit the atoms as often, allowing them to flow freely.
Superconducting materials already exist and are used worldwide in a variety of applications, such as MRI machines. However, this requires extremely low temperatures (near absolute zero at around -459 degrees Fahrenheit) or extremely high pressures (more than 100,000 times atmospheric pressure).
Meanwhile, Tokai Railway is building a superconducting maglev system to transport passengers between Tokyo and Nagoya. The SCMaglev train uses rubber wheels and reaches speeds of about 93 miles per hour before a system of superconducting magnets takes over. It is said to be capable of speeds of 311 miles per hour.
The process involves cooling a superconducting niobium-titanium alloy to -452 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid helium.
Room-temperature superconductors such as LK-99 would make this work much cheaper and eliminate the need to store helium. (Despite some concern in the media in recent years, we won’t run out of helium anytime soon, but it’s only produced in a handful of countries, so supply issues could drive prices up considerably.)
Doubts about LK-99 results
Wang and other superconductivity experts were skeptical of the original LK-99 experiments, pointing to inconsistencies in the data. He cautioned that the results should not be overstated “until more convincing experimental data are available.” His team at the University of Wollongong set out to reproduce the results over the weekend, but ran into problems with sample preparation.
Argonne National Laboratory physicist Michael Norman was outspoken in an interview with Science. He said the Korean team “looked like real amateurs”.
On the X (formerly known as Twitter) website, the LK-99 has been trending for days. It’s officially entered meme territory — everyone’s talking about “pumice” — and sparked some weird claims, with many pointing out the plethora of accounts that quickly went from promoting AI investing to suddenly supporting stock changes. into a superconductor. For example, shares of American Superconductor have doubled since July 27.
Even Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, chimed in and joked, “I love emails from recruiters.” I asked for 2+ years of LK-99 experience.
Skepticism about the LK-99 is justified. Over the years, many teams have claimed to have discovered room-temperature superconductors. Most of these claims do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
In 2020, for example, a team led by physicist Ranga Dias of the University of Rochester in New York published evidence of room-temperature superconductors in the prestigious journal Nature. The article was retracted in September 2022 after questions were raised about how the data in the paper was processed and analyzed. The authors claim that the raw data strongly support their claims, but they have not been able to replicate their experiments.
What’s next for LK-99?
What does LK-99 mean to you? The moment probably won’t be much, unless you want to fall down the physics rabbit hole on the X and soak up the moment. Maybe not too many in the near future.
We’re still in the early stages of rebuilding the LK-99 experiment, but things aren’t looking good. Two studies by two independent research groups published on arXiv on Monday failed to replicate the Korean study. Wang noted that Chinese researchers have observed some of the material’s superconducting properties in very small samples.
Science is often a slow process. Confirmation of the South Korean team’s work was predicted to take a week, but with the excitement already high, theoretical studies began to explain the properties of LK-99.
Sinéad Griffin, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used supercomputer simulations to analyze the function of LK-99. (Griffin’s post on X was accompanied by a meme of Barack Obama dropping the microphone.) The research is also preprinted on arXiv.
Physicists who commented on Griffin’s work were cynical about the mic drop reference and didn’t believe it provided solid evidence of superconductivity. Griffin herself detailed her findings in Wednesday’s X-Thread, noting that they neither prove nor prove the material’s superconductivity, but rather show interesting structural and electronic properties that are common to high-temperature superconductors. point (i.e. well above negative values). 452 degrees Fahrenheit, but well below room temperature).
Even if LK-99 proves to be a reliable superconducting material, the process of turning science into technology may be slower. Such a material could take many years to be reliably produced, and Griffin’s theoretical work also suggests that it could be difficult to synthesize.
LK-99 may not seem like the Holy Grail, but it could be an interesting material in its own right, opening up the possibility of finding room-temperature superconductors in new and unexpected ways. If room-temperature superconductors do emerge, truly new possibilities will open up.
Giuseppe Tettamanzi, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, points out that scientists have long considered replacing copper cables in power grids with superconducting cables, a switch that could lead to huge energy saving effect. He also mentioned the benefits of quantum computing and transportation.
“The sky is the limit here,” he said
Watching the science in action is exciting, and being enthusiastic about LK-99 is a nice change of pace from X-Feed, at least for me. But the practical application of science takes time, and one should not jump to conclusions about the world-changing impact of potential superconducting materials. Now we are waiting for the replicator to start working.