Energy breakthrough or resistance letdown? Here's what's so super about superconductors

Meet LK-99, the alleged room-temperature superconductor that could revolutionize technology — if it actually works

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published August 10, 2023 5:29AM (EDT)

Image concept of magnetic levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen (Getty Images/ktsimage)
Image concept of magnetic levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen (Getty Images/ktsimage)

Don't feel bad if you have absolutely zero clue why the tech-savvy online are all freaking out about this weird thing called LK-99, a supposed superconductor that can operate at room temperature and at ambient pressure. I'm right there with you. Or rather, I was. Though conversant in most forms of niche nerdery, materials science isn't my bag. Still, the recent speculation that LK-99 could herald limitless clean energy and a quantum computer in every pocket is an eyebrow-raising claim worth parsing.  

So I went on the hunt for us, and I'm back with the 101 about this potential development in tech that some call the holy grail of materials science. Here's the breakdown on how a superconductive material like LK-99 might upend the entire tech world — and whether or not this latest iteration is more hype-ful than hopeful. 

What is a superconductor?

Insulators like wood and rubber slow down or stop electricity, but conductors — like the copper wires in your house and the gallium metal in your phone — are veins through which electricity can pass easily. Even so, no matter how conductive a metal is, it's always going to lose some of the electricity that your utility line or phone battery sends through it. That's called resistance, and it's the enemy of computers and clean energy. 

A superconductor is a material that lets electricity pass through with zero resistance — whether that material is an elemental metal like tin or a compound made of copper and oxygen. It also expels all magnetic fields. Some superconductors work only at extremely low temperatures or at extremely high pressures — making them wholly impractical to use at scale. So far, no one has confirmed the existence of a reproducible superconductor that works at room temperature and normal ambient pressure. 

In the past few years, though, excitement has been growing as some in the field believe we're closer than ever to finding the magic material. And now that hope is sparked anew with recent research from two universities. 

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What would a room-temperature superconductor do? 

That's the exciting part. Right now, we're wasting tons of power fighting basic electrical resistance in every electronic device and every electrical grid. Room-temperature superconductors would be able to eliminate that margin of waste and could launch us toward our most energy-efficient future yet. 

How so? In order to account for the amount of power you'll lose to resistance, you have to generate more power than you actually use for any electronic device. That unused electricity turns to heat, which means you need more parts in that device to cool it down. At a global scale, all of this costly wasted energy-heat adds up quickly — from massive server farms to supply chain logistics, power-hungry Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines to quantum computers. 

"Even though promising efforts have been seen probing the edges of possibility, some high-profile failures have most in the scientific community casting a skeptical on any claims of discovery."

Some of the most exciting and promising clean tech — like magnetic levitation trains and other low-cost, high-speed transportation — could finally be viable for mass development with superconductor use. Practical superconductors could also lead to smaller, cheaper MRIs, which might no longer need helium to be cooled down — good news given we could one day run out of helium. Nuclear fusion reactor cooling could become safer and easier. Batteries of all kinds, full of dangerously mined precious metals and hazardous chemicals, could be reduced to mere backup players with the introduction of superconducting magnetic energy storage. 

If it uses electricity, a room-temperature superconductor would probably make it better smaller, and more efficient. It would also probably win researchers a Nobel Prize and potentially make them extremely wealthy to boot.

What is LK-99 and is it real?

According to two new research papers, LK-99 is a purported superconductor made of a lead-apatite and copper combination which works at room temperatures and ambient pressures. The researchers are from the Quantum Energy Research Centre in South Korea and Virginia's College of William & Mary. 

The research hasn't been fully peer-reviewed, but the preliminary results were published on the preprint server arXiv. Researchers at other labshave been encouraged to attempt to replicate the work. What really grabbed everyone's attention in the science world was a video of the researchers' work — featuring a dark gray chunk of their material, levitating over a magnet. Though not a guarantee of superconductivity, the image indicates the material is displaying at least one promising, tell-tale sign of it.

The gist of the discovery is that this surprisingly simple combination of a couple of normally non-conductive minerals (lead is often an insulator, for instance) can supposedly become unconventionally superconductive without any great strain. The paper describes a remarkably simple process: powder the elements, mix them well, then bake it in an oven. 

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Why are people skeptical of LK-99? 

Claims of finding the long-sought holy grail of material science are already bound to be met with a keen sense of scientific skepticism on even the best days. It doesn't help that superconductors are among the hottest topics in science at the moment, and have been topically ripe for shoddy science. 

Even though promising efforts have been seen probing the edges of possibility, some high-profile failures have most in the scientific community casting a skeptical eye on any claims of discovery and looking closely at the data to find holes. The data in the LK-99 research has left some scientists cautious due to the absence of a few key measurements, even as many attempt to replicate the results. 

More suspicions surfaced when the paper's authorship came under question. As it turns out, a six-member team of researchers had previously published a strikingly similar paper, with some results suggesting that the material wasn't a superconductor. One researcher who was on both the six-author team and the three-author LK-99 team even said the results were published without permission of other authors. 

By the end of July, two independent research teams were unable to replicate LK-99's superconductivity, and more question have risen since. On August 9, New Scientist reported that "mounting evidence" suggests "the chances of LK-99 being a superconductor are looking increasingly slim."

What's next for LK-99? 

The race is on to reproduce LK-99, and researchers both amateur and academic are abuzz with efforts

Some, like physicist Sinéad Griffin of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have already published theoretical studies exploring LK-99's similarities to other kinds of superconductors via computer simulation. 

But, as CNET journalist Jackson Ryan puts it: Science, in action, takes time. 

Even though superconductor company stocks have been sent soaring in the past few weeks and the future-attuned are getting a heady whiff of potentially world-changing tech, the proper vetting and testing of any possible room-temperature superconductor by the material science community is going to be slow. 

If LK-99 actually turns out to be the Nobel-winning discovery of a generation, implementing that discovery into consumer and industrial tech that we can buy would still require massive changes in the global sprawl of manufacturing processes — a shift which can only occur at a glacial pace.  

Slow as it may be, though, it's still a pace worth pursuing if it means we can all finally have real hoverboards. For now, we're stuck with fumbling prototypes — and everyone knows those boards don't work on water, McFly.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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