A room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor? Take a closer look

It's OK to be skeptical if someone says they found the holy grail

Three scientists in South Korea claim they've crafted a superconductor that works at both room temperature and ambient pressure – a revolutionary breakthrough if confirmed. 

Superconductors – which are able to conduct electricity with virtually no resistance, and therefore have almost zero energy loss – typically require intense cold and pressure to function. In a pre-print paper, the scientific trio state they were able to produce a modified form of lead-apatite dubbed LK-99 that is superconductive at any temperature below 127°C (261°F) without the need for pressure chambers.

Such a superconductor could be useful, provided all of its physical characteristics are sound. For example, it could be used to make faster digital electronics, resulting in higher performance from personal computers. It could be used in MRI machines without the extreme cooling required, which has caused a shortage of helium. Something like LK-99 could replace the powerful magnets in maglev trains and fusion reactors. And obviously could produce super-efficient power transmission lines.

According to the scientists, by substituting a fraction of the lead in LK-99 with copper ions, the volume of the material is slightly reduced, resulting in tiny structural distortions. That deformation leads to the creation of superconducting quantum wells. Those wells, they explained, are key to achieving superconductivity. Also, the material is unable to relax and lose its superconductivity.  

Their paper shows a sliver of superconducting material partially levitating off a normal magnet due to the Meissner effect. It's not fully off the magnet's surface due to imperfections; this is an academic study after all, and not a commercial product. We understand some patent applications have already been filed.

Still from a video of the Lee et al superconductor LK-99 paper

Still from a video provided with the LK-99 paper showing what's said to be the LK-99 superconductor levitating off a normal magnet at room temperature and atmospheric pressure ... Click to enlarge

Activating traditional superconductors requires intense physical conditions, which limits the scope of their use to large or bulky installations, experimental systems, and the like. The three boffins – Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim of the Quantum Energy Research Centre in South Korea, and Young-Wan Kwon of the KU-KIST Graduate School of Converging Science and Technology at Korea University – suggest those days could be over.

"All evidence and explanation lead that LK-99 is the first room-temperature and ambient-pressure superconductor," the trio claimed in their paper.

"We believe that our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind." Not to overstate things.

As far as we're aware, their study has not yet been accepted or published in a peer-reviewed journal. We've asked them for further comment.

The Register reached out to several physics departments and labs to get their take on the LK-99 paper, and we'll let you know what they make of it all. Professors Susannah Speller and Chris Grovenor of the University of Oxford's Department of Materials in England earlier told the i newspaper they have some doubts about the South Korean team's claims. 

"It is too early to say that we have been presented with compelling evidence for superconductivity in these samples," the duo said. They added the paper was interesting, though the results weren't wholly convincing. 

Two critical data points needed to ascertain the superconductivity of LK-99 – its magnetization changing as well as heat capacity – aren't evident in the data the trio presented, Profs Speller and Grovenor argued. 

Another physicist, Sven Friedemann of the University of Bristol in England, shared that assessment, saying vital evidence was missing from the South Korea paper. Friedemann also questioned whether footage in the study claiming to show Meissner effect levitation due to expulsion of magnetic fields could be also caused by a non-superconducting source.

So hold the excitement, for now at least.

We may not have to wait long to find out whether the team's conclusions are true, though. In an accompanying paper detailing the creation of LK-99, the team claimed they only needed a few days and simple laboratory tools to synthesize their allegedly revolutionary material.

That second paper has a few extra names on it, we note, including Hyun-Tak Kim, a physics professor at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, USA, and a highly cited academic.

If interested physicists decide to put these claims to the test, we may know soon whether this research is more hype than breakthrough. ®

Skepticism is healthy here

We've been down this road before, with some boffins boasting about discovering this sort of electrical holy grail, as Nature's news team documented this week.

Take for instance Ranga Dias, a physicist at the University of Rochester in the US, who had a paper published in Nature in 2020 in which he and fellow eggheads claimed to have created a room-temperature superconductor from a combination of carbon, sulfur, and hydrogen under extreme pressure. 

Nature retracted that paper late last year after questions were raised when others couldn't replicate the results and concerns arose over how raw data gathered from the experiments was processed.

Now the Physical Review Letters (PRL) is said to be preparing a retraction of a second of Dias's papers, this one dealing with the electrical properties of manganese disulfide. According to Nature, PRL is probing allegations of data fabrication and falsification, combined with concerns raised by the first retraction. 

These investigations have reignited scrutiny of a third paper by Dias and colleagues. Published in March to much fanfare, Dias et al claimed to have discovered near-ambient pressure and room temperature superconductivity in a material made of lutetium, hydrogen, and nitrogen. 

Dias denies any wrongdoing, and told Nature's journalists in a statement: "We remain certain that there has been no data fabrication, data manipulation or any other scientific misconduct in connection with our work. Despite this setback, we remain enthusiastic about continuing our work."

There is no connection between the investigations into Dias's studies and the LK-99 superconductivity paper.

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