News & Analysis

LK-99 superconductor breakthrough: what’s the deal?

8th August 2023
Harry Fowle

A significant yet befuddling step in the direction of a superconducting world, what’s the deal with the LK-99 superconductor breakthrough?

A team of researchers out of a Seoul suburb in South Korea claim to have made a remarkable and transformative breakthrough in the world of superconductors, believing their new development “will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind.”

In the paper published by the research team, they claim to have synthesised the world’s first room-temperature operating superconductor that operates at ambient pressure from a lead-based material known as LK-99. However, these claims, which have not been officially peer-reviewed by academics, have been met with high levels of scepticism.

What is a superconductor?

A superconductor is a unique material that can conduct electricity with almost zero resistance. In regular materials, like the wires used in everyday electronics, electricity encounters some resistance as it flows, which leads to energy losses typically in the form of heat. However, in a superconductor, this resistance disappears almost entirely, allowing electricity to flow through it without losing any energy. The unique property enables superconductors to be incredibly efficient for transmitting electricity and generating powerful magnetic fields.

However, whilst this all sounds fantastic, they do come with a handful of major caveats. Most notable of these issues is that in order to maintain superconducting properties in current known materials, they must be super-cooled to extremely low temperatures, often close to absolute zero (-273.15°C). This means that they are considerably expensive and energy-intensive to maintain successfully, especially when you factor in that these cooling systems are often complex within themselves. There also comes the problem that many of the known materials for superconducting today are either highly fragile, made of high-cost materials, or prone to instability. All of these issues also feed into the problems over scalability which, as it currently stands, is highly limited despite its immense potential.

The applications of superconductors

The news of a superconductor with the potential to operate at room temperature in an ambient vacuum is highly exciting due to the countless revolutionary ways in which it can be applied to current and future technologies.

Primarily, having a material such as LK-99 would be immense for the power industry when it comes to areas such as generation, storage, and transmission. A superconducting power grid would see a considerable decrease in wasted electricity, being able to store and transmit with almost no losses. Additionally, superconducting materials have a key role to play in sustainable energy generation, such as wind and solar, due to their unique suitability in scenarios where excess energy needs to be stored and released on demand.

LK-99 would also revolutionise computing both in the classical and quantum worlds. Traditional computers generate heat as they process data, leading to increased energy consumption and the need for consistent cooling systems. Utilising a superconducting material in these systems would make them ultra-efficient that generate a minimal amount of heat compared to current approaches. Meanwhile in quantum computing, which is a rabbit hole in itself, having access to an LK-99-esq. material would spearhead superconductor approaches to quantum computers. It would mean that the ability to create qubits via superconductors would become a far more accessible and stable approach which in turn could pioneer scalable superconducting quantum computers in the future. Companies such as Google, IBM, IMEC, and Intel are already using current superconducting materials in super-cooled quantum processing units (QPUs) and having access to a room-temperature superconducting architecture could be revolutionary for this approach.

A superconductor with the properties of LK-99 would also be momentous in the ever-evolving e-landscape of today's world. These materials could make for vastly superior electric motors and generators in terms of efficiency and productivity due to the stronger magnetic fields at a lower energy cost. This is especially valuable in applications where high torque or power density is needed, such as in industrial processes or electric vehicles.

These are just a few of the many significant applications that LK-99 could fundamentally change, with other industries such as medical, fusion, transport, defence and security, acute sensors, and scientific research also being interconnected with the technology.

New fact or still fiction?

However, whilst this all sounds fantastic at face value, it is precisely that – face value. The supposed discovery of LK-99 is writhed with drama and, overall, is a bit of a scientific rollercoaster. The unofficial source of the discovery, as well as the lacklustre non-peer-reviewed paper published which contain the claims has left many academics and scientists sceptical to say the least. However, as the recent Oppenheimer film has taught us, theory can only take you so far.

Michael Norman, a Physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, noted that the researchers who published the findings “come off as real amateurs.” Continuing by saying: “They don’t know much about superconductivity and the way they’ve presented some of the data is rather fishy.”

Meanwhile, others took a more positive level of scepticism, such as Jens Kock, a Physics Professor at Northwestern University, who commented: “I take it with a proverbial grain of salt, though this particular grain seems closer to the size of a rock.

“This is an area of research where breakthrough claims have been made in the past and then had to be retracted because they did not hold up under scrutiny.

“Some of my colleagues have already voiced concerns about the data presented by the South Korean group.

“I will believe it if or when I see verification.”

Despite the scepticism, there might actually be some authenticity behind the claims, as two separate research teams have claimed to informally confirm certain aspects of the material's superconductivity in preliminary tests.

Sinéad Griffin, Researcher at the US-based Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, carefully examined the original paper, utilising the advanced computational power of the Department of Energy's supercomputers to simulate the behaviour of the LK-99 material. This intriguing blend is created by combining the minerals lanarkite (Pb₂SO₅) and copper phosphide (Cu₃P). These two components are then subjected to a 4-day, multi-step, small-scale solid-state synthesis process, resulting in the formation of the LK-99 material. Doing so confirmed that the material should indeed have pathways to enable superconductivity to occur, however noting that these pathways were not consistent in their formation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Chinese researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology have seemingly been able to replicate the manufacturing process of LK-99, showing video proof on the popular Chinese site Bilibili. Within the video, the team demonstrates the Meissner effect, the magnetic field expulsed by the superconducting process, and the properties of the LK-99 material which, if true, is definitive evidence.

Unfortunately, all we can do now is wait and see what the final outcome of further testing discovers. Within the coming weeks, we may be able to say that humanity has produced a replicable room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor, and kickstart the new technological age it would ensue… or we will all be a little disappointed.

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