Outside of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, physics gets little traction in popular culture. However, a trio of scientists’ recent claim is getting everyone talking: they may have developed materials that can superconduct at room temperature. Moreover, if that is true, it could have life-altering consequences.
A team of South Korean researchers led by Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim have published two preprint papers on the arXiv preprint server claiming to have synthesized a material called LK 99 that exhibits room-temperature superconductivity. This has sparked excitement in the scientific community, but a closer look at the evidence suggests some reasons to be cautious.
The team says it produced LK99 by mixing powders containing sulfur, oxygen, and phosphorus and exposing them to high temperatures. Then they used a solid-state reaction process to transform the mixture into a dark gray crystal with properties that match a superconductor’s. It is also capable of storing energy, and the researchers showed how it could be magnetically levitated on a bilibili video.
This is a big deal because it is the first time anyone has demonstrated the Meissner effect – when certain materials can levitate on a magnet without touching it. This would be a critical indicator that the LK99 is truly superconductive at room temperature, and it is what many people hope to see replicated by other teams.
However, the two papers the LK 99 team published contain some suspicious details that give experts reason to be skeptical. For one, the paper omits specific measurements that should have been included. Moreover, James Hamlin, a physicist at the University of Florida who has worked on measuring superconductivity, pointed out anomalies in the data that made him doubt the results.
There are other signs that the claims about LK99 might not be legitimate, including that the researchers do not know how to produce their material. The papers they have released need to be peer-reviewed, and their description of how to make the stuff could be more specific. Physicists from other labs have already begun to try reproducing the experiment, and their results will determine whether or not the LK 99 is the holy grail of superconductivity.
If the new material is a superconductor, it would open up some exciting possibilities. For example, it could store excess energy from renewable sources like wind and solar during peak production times. It could then be released during lower energy consumption periods, making relying on clean energy sources more feasible for daily energy needs. It also improves the performance of electric motors and propulsion systems, leading to EVs with longer ranges and faster charging speeds. However, these are just some possibilities that could emerge if LK 99 proves to be accurate. It is certainly not the first time a promising research finding has been met with skepticism, and it might not be the last.