Screengrab: Hyun-Tak Kim via ScienceCast
Scientists claim to have achieved a holy grail of energy research, saying they’ve created a room-temperature superconductor that works at ambient pressures and represents “a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind.” The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, went viral on social media, with venture capitalists and Twitter Blue users alike going along with its claims. Now, some are even documenting their attempts to replicate the paper’s supposed breakthrough.
ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.
Scientists in relevant fields aren’t convinced, however, and when contacted by Motherboard expressed serious misgivings about the paper. The study that gained viral attention was posted to the arXiv preprint server on July 22 and is titled “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor.” A superconductor is a material that does not lose any electricity to resistance when it is passed through it, in contrast to just about every other material in existence. Replacing copper wiring with a superconductor would make humanity’s electricity use radically more efficient, for example. Superconductors could power quantum computers, make maglev trains more widespread and feasible, and make MRI machines (which already use superconductors) cheaper. The problem is that, so far, superconductors require extremely low temperatures or high pressures to work, limiting their widespread application. Hence the search for a room-temperature superconductor that works at ambient pressures, which the new research claims to have discovered in a new substance called LK-99. The paper—authored by Korean scientists Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim from the Quantum Energy Research Centre, and Young-Wan Kwon from the KU-KIST Graduate School of Converging Science and Technology—claims to report the creation of LK-99 by mixing lankarite and copper phosphide with a mortar and pestle and creating an ingot. They report that LK-99 expresses all the hallmarks of a superconductor at room temperature, including the so-called Meissner effect, which is when a superconductor levitates when placed on a magnet.
“For the first time in the world, we succeeded in synthesizing the room-temperature superconductor… working at ambient pressure with a modified lead-apatite (LK-99) structure,” the paper states. Researchers contacted by Motherboard expressed deep skepticism regarding the paper’s supposed findings. “It is really frustrating! With such a title I thought that it should be something serious, but it does not seem so,” said Pablo D. Esquinazi, head of the Division of Quantum Magnetism and Superconductivity at the University of Leipzig, in an email. “The transport data on the manuscript cannot be taken seriously in the way they presented. And about the ‘levitation,’ well I do not think that the video shows what we see when we have a superconducting material levitating on a permanent magnet. You can get a similar behavior with a sample having a part magnetically ordered, near or on the permanent magnet,” he wrote. Esquinazi forwarded Motherboard a video from Jorge Hirsch, a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrating this effect.
Indeed, in a video purporting to show the levitational Meissner effect of LK-99, the alleged superconductor never fully makes it off of the magnet.
“In any case, it is really not worth [discussing] at this stage,” Esquinazi added. “I think this is attracting more attention than it probably warrants until there is independent verification,” said James Hamlin, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s physics department focused on superconducting at high temperatures. He also expressed that the finding was not worthy of media attention at this point. “Other groups should make the material and confirm or the discovery group should supply samples to experts who are qualified to take more complete and convincing data,” he added. Despite the evident caution expressed by scientists, the paper’s findings have already spread far and wide, and some people are attempting to reproduce its discovery using available materials. After all, the paper reports LK-99 was created using a tool found in most home kitchens. Andrew McCalip, an engineer at space startup Varda Space Industries, is documenting his own attempt to reproduce LK-99’s Meissner effect. “I think humanity just changed,” he said in one tweet explaining the attempt on Wednesday. “If this can be replicated, the authors will be the next Einstein or Bohr,” he said in another. McCalip has not posted an update to the experiment yet.
There is some intrigue surrounding the research that, to some, indicates even more strongly that the finding appeared monumental to its authors. The study that went viral had three authors—one Twitter user pointed out that only three people can share a Nobel Prize in Physics—but a second study on LK-99 posted to arXiv on the same day has six authors. A paper on LK-99 published in April in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Korean Crystal Growth and Crystal Technology also lists six authors. Neither of the studies with six authors phrase their claims as bombastically as the three-author paper. One of the scientists listed on the six-author preprint, but left off of the one that went viral, is Hyun-Tak Kim, a research professor of physics at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Kim told New Scientist that the viral three-author paper contains “many defects” and was uploaded without his knowledge, and that the partial levitation in the Meissner effect video is explained by the sample being imperfect. Kim told the outlet that he and his team are working on getting the most recent findings regarding LK-99 published in a peer-review journal, and that he would support any group attempting to replicate their findings. Despite the enormous public interest generated by LK-99, scientists have good reason to be highly skeptical. In 2020, a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature claimed to report the discovery of a superconductor that works at 15 degrees Celsius (slightly below room temperature), but at very high pressures. Last year, that paper was retracted after other groups failed to replicate its findings. This week, the Nature news team reported that another retraction from the physicist behind that paper—Ranga Dias from the University of Rochester—is imminent due to “apparent data fabrication.”Is LK-99 a watershed for humanity, or will it turn out to be another scientific disappointment? The only rational approach is to wait and see if it can be replicated and verified by other groups in peer-reviewed studies, a process that tends to move much more slowly than tweets can fly. Becky Ferreira contributed reporting.