Both excitement and skepticism are sparked by the room-temperature superconductor claim

Superconductivity representation (Courtesy: iStock/ktsimage)
Superconductivity representation (Courtesy: iStock/ktsimage)

When a group of South Korean researchers led by physicist Seok-bae Lee announced they had found the first superconductor to exist at ambient temperature, it sent shockwaves through the scientific community. A scientific community eager to independently evaluate the research paper’s findings has welcomed and criticized it, nevertheless.

Lee and colleagues at the Quantum Energy Research Institute revealed LK-99, a material that they claim exhibits superconductivity at temperatures up to 400K (127°C), significantly breaking the previous record of -135°C, in two preprint publications published on arXiv. If confirmed, this alleged discovery might lead to the development of quantum computers, lossless power transfer, and ground-breaking battery storage technologies.

What is a superconductor?

The kinetic energy of the molecules within a substance is measured by that substance’s temperature. In contrast to cool, which represents slower, quieter electrons, hot materials have extremely fast-moving electrons. Since there is no barrier to the flow of electrons in a superconductor, there is no heat produced.

Electrons can move freely when a substance is cooled below its critical temperature, much like a person could in a room with only a few individuals doing yoga. In contrast, as individuals try to pass through a busy dance floor at a warmer temperature, the material’s electrons collide and resist one another. Loss of power or energy is the result of this resistance.

These researchers have effectively asserted that they have discovered a method to make navigating a packed dance floor as simple as navigating an icy yoga studio

What makes LK-99 so unique?

The researchers created LK-99 and assessed its electrical resistance using a brand-new solid-state reaction technique that is briefly described in the study. At 220 °C, the resistance abruptly decreased, indicating superconductivity. A characteristic of superconductors known as the “Meissner effect” was also demonstrated.

As evidence that the object isn’t totally levitating, skeptics have argued that the partial magnetic levitation shown in the report is simply an illusion created by another magnet that is beyond the image’s frame. The LK-99 material has flaws, according to the researchers, which cause some of the material to be superconductive while other portions are not. This leads to partial levitation.

A major source of dispute is the lack of information supplied concerning the experimental circumstances. There have been earlier, later-debunked claims of obtaining room-temperature superconductivity. According to Science, other scientists are currently competing to independently replicate LK-99.

According to Michael Norman, a theorist at Argonne National Laboratory, “They come off as real amateurs.” “They don’t know much about superconductivity, and some of the data they presented is suspicious,” one person said.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Nadya Mason, a condensed matter physicist, remarked, “The data seems a bit sloppy.”

Conversation and argument

Many researchers—and would-be researchers—have been sharing their passionate thoughts on the subject on Science Twitter for days.

A scientist named Sinéad M. Griffin from Berkeley Labs used a supercomputer owned by the US Department of Energy to do simulations that, in the words of one engineer, “support LK-99 as the holy grail of modern material science and applied physics.”

An “anime catgirl” soil scientist from Russia by the name of Iris Alexandra detailed her attempts to replicate the paper’s findings in her kitchen.

The circumstances of the paper’s publication are also under dispute. One of the two preprint articles, according to co-author Hyun-Tak Kim of William & Mary University, was posted without authorization and had “many flaws.” Others, like Princeton University’s Alex Kaplan, contend that the authors’ primary aim was getting a well-known co-author to sign their paper, which facilitated the hasty release.

Scientists have long been fascinated by the idea of room temperature superconductors due of its revolutionary potential. Lossless power grids, quicker trains, portable fusion reactors, extremely energy-efficient devices, and other scientific and technical pipe dreams might become a reality.

However, prior assertions have been disproved, and superconductor research has long struggled with reproducibility.

If LK-99 holds up over time, a new era of invention might begin. Physics researchers are currently holding their breath in expectation as the findings go through a trial by fire that will be decided upon by the greater scientific community. To distinguish a historically significant discovery from wishful thinking may take weeks or months.