Super scepticism required for superconductor claims

The idea of ambient superconductivity is fascinating, and would have major implications for technology, transport and energy. But we should stay cool, says Jason Walsh
Credit: Riccardo Annandale / CCO

4 August 2023

A group of South Korean researchers claim to have created a room-temperature superconductor called LK-99, a lead-based compound that can be made by baking two minerals. Despite being met with scepticism from physicists, tech Twitter lit up with delight at the possibilities including, for some reason, orbital railguns.

Leaving aside the overgrown adolescent space war fantasies of Twitter, sorry ‘X’, users and venture capitalists, what is the fuss all about? A superconductor is able to conduct electricity with almost no resistance, and, as a result, has almost no energy loss. Compare this with typical conductive material, such as copper wire, where some electrons simply fail to conduct, creating resistance and, therefore, energy transfer into heat and, ultimately, losses.

Having a grid that suffered from close to zero transmission losses would be enough of a leap forward on its own, but functionally useful superconductors would amount to a lot more.

In fact, superconductors do exist, but heretofore have typically required intense cold and pressure in order to function. Not ideal. However, room-temperature superconductors would have huge implications for energy generation and transmission, transport, ultra-fast computing, and many other areas of technology.




As the Korean paper is a pre-print, and therefore has not been peer-reviewed, it is very difficult to know how seriously to take the claims, which include that LK-99 shows zero resistance and magnetic levitation at normal air pressure and at temperatures up to 127 degrees Celsius.

Even if it passes peer-review it may be some time before we see quantum iPhones, nuclear fusion or, er, orbital death machines. After all, it’s hardly news that scientists spend a lot of time turning gold into lead. Almost as much as the tech industry does, in fact. Still, it would certainly be a new dawn. The question now is: will it be a false one?

It is worth noting, for instance, that the scholarly journal Physical Review Letters is, according to Nature, about to retract another room-temperature superconductor claim, this one made by an American physicist, amid suspicions of data fabrication. Last year, Nature itself retracted some of the same researcher’s work. That’s the journal Nature, not the existing universe, though in this case at least one follows the other.

Perhaps we won’t have to wait too long, though. Researchers across the globe are now racing to see if LK-99’s properties are replicable. Until then, however, like existing superconductors, perhaps we should all keep cool.

Read More:

Back to Top ↑