A claim by South Korean scientists over room-temperature superconductors sends the global scientific community into a tizzy. But is it really the breakthrough the world is waiting for?
When South Korean scientists claimed a potential leap in superconductor technology, the global scientific community was set abuzz, oscillating between anticipation and scepticism, as researchers worldwide hastened to reproduce the encouraging experiments.
Superconductors could revolutionise industries ranging from power grids to computing, making them a critical frontier in contemporary science and technology.
Picture a busy city during rush hour. Vehicles are moving along, but they must stop for traffic signals and slow down because of congestion.
This is similar to how electrical current behaves in an ordinary conductor, like a copper wire. It moves along but faces resistance, which leads to energy loss. Now, imagine an open highway with no slowdowns. That is more like a superconductor.
They are special materials that, under certain conditions, allow electrical current to flow freely without any resistance, like cars on a superhighway. This means no energy is wasted, which makes superconductors incredibly efficient.
But there is a catch: as of now, superconductors only work when cooled down to extremely cold temperatures, which is both expensive and inconvenient. That is why scientists around the globe are on a quest to discover superconductors that operate at room temperature.
Such a breakthrough would revolutionise our power grids, computer technology, transportation systems, and many more.
That is why the scientific community swiftly turned its attention to a paper by the South Korean team, initially shared on the preprint platform arXiv, which claimed to have created a material which achieves superconductivity at ambient pressures.
If the group’s assertions withstand rigorous verification, this development could signify a major advancement in superconductor technology.
Nadya Mason, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, shares her cautious optimism with TRT World.
“It’s too early to tell, but exciting nonetheless. This is either a superconductor or a pretty unusual material. The great news is that the material synthesis is straightforward, so many people are attempting to confirm the results,” she says.
Ali Bozbey, an expert on superconducting electronics from TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, mirrors the cautious optimism.
“Although superconductivity of matter is not yet generally accepted, the fact that it has not been clearly proven otherwise for two weeks by both experimental groups and theoretical groups can be considered as an important indicator,” he tells TRT World.
The implications of such a discovery could transform condensed matter physics, possibly paving the way for innovations as transformative as levitating vehicles and hyper-efficient electrical systems, previously the stuff of science fiction.
As one materials science researcher from Penn State University puts it: “should we unearth the secret of room-temperature superconductivity and successfully weave it into the fabric of our everyday lives, it would represent a breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Prize”.
“Beyond its practical applications, unravelling the mystery of superconductivity would shed light on profound aspects of physics, catalysing further discoveries and sparking innovative solutions to other scientific conundrums,” the researcher says.
The papers providing details about the alleged discovery were posted on the arXiv preprint server on July 22 and, according to many physicists, lacked comprehensive data that one would expect from such a significant claim.
In their paper, the Korean researchers boldly announced their work, saying, “for the first time in the world, we succeeded in synthesising the room-temperature superconductor”. The team also reported that their compound, named LK-99, exhibited an ability to repel magnetic fields, a critical characteristic consistent with superconductors.
Despite the fanfare associated with their announcement, the worldwide scientific community is now fervently attempting to validate or debunk these claims.
While a few preliminary nods have emerged supporting some of the claims, comprehensive validation, which could confirm or deny the existence of a room-temperature superconductor, remains absent.
Mason sheds light on the varying outcomes of attempts to replicate the findings, stating, “A few studies claim to confirm elements of the paper (diamagnetism and a resistance transition), but others do not see the same results. This is not unusual for new materials that need to be purified and have better-controlled material properties.”
Presently, the functionality of superconductors hinges on maintaining them at extremely low temperatures, a condition that proves expensive and inconvenient. Should scientists accomplish the feat of creating room-temperature superconductors, it would herald an era of vastly more efficient power grids and computer chips.
The repercussions of this revolutionary concept would be profound when applied to the world’s most powerful computers, housing trillions of tiny electronic switches called transistors.
Superconducting materials could considerably expedite processes like artificial intelligence calculations, making complex tasks more manageable.
Andrew Cote, an engineer specialising in applied physics, took to X, formerly Twitter, to speculate on the future of this potential superconductor. Provided its status as a superconductor is confirmed, he estimates that the market value of this novel material could fluctuate between an astonishing $1.5 to $4.5 trillion, depending on its precise capabilities.
He elaborated that such a discovery could potentially bring about transformative changes across a vast array of industries, including telecom hardware, smartphones, electronic sensors, satellites, graphics processing units (GPUs), central processing units (CPUs), antennas, power transmission and generation, electric motors, rail freight, and energy storage.
However, any such breakthrough, if realised, will require time, cautions Bozbey. “If the news is true and LK-99 is a material suitable for industrial use, it would be a revolutionary development, especially for the energy sector, but we will start to see its effects in 5-10 years at the earliest,” he says.
Mason emphasised that the potential application of this technology would enable the use of superconducting wires for power grids and devices. “This is crucial for reducing energy waste, which contributes to climate change and loss of resources.”
Yet, in line with Bozbey’s views, she cautions that “much material engineering would need to happen – or even new materials discovered – but this paves the way.”
Aside from the timeline for practical applications, the scientific community’s approach to superconductivity news is rooted in cautious scepticism.
This hesitancy largely stems from past failed attempts to demonstrate room-temperature superconductivity.
For instance, a declaration of a superconductivity breakthrough by a team led by physicist Ranga Dias from the University of Rochester in March 2023 incited considerable debate.
Despite their findings being published in the prestigious journal Nature, an earlier paper casts a shadow of doubt over the merit of their latest publication.
In 2020, Dias’s group boldly claimed to witness superconductivity in a tiny particle composed of carbon, sulphur, and hydrogen. This revolutionary assertion was met with swift scepticism as other researchers found replicating the results a difficult endeavour.
Critics called into question the study’s methodology, labelling it ambiguous and incomplete. They also contested the measurements associated with the material’s magnetic behaviour, a key feature of superconductivity. Amid this controversy, Nature ultimately retracted the paper in September 2022.
This backdrop of scepticism serves as a stark reminder of the many hurdles that superconductivity research must overcome before any claimed breakthrough can be accepted as a definitive leap forward.
Two different research initiatives, one conducted at the National Physical Laboratory of India in New Delhi and the other at Beihang University in Beijing, announced the successful synthesis of LK-99. However, neither experiment observed any indications of superconductivity.
A group of scientists from the Physics Department of Southeast University in Nanjing, China, on the other hand, reported the observation of zero electrical resistance of LK-99 — a hallmark of superconductivity.
However, they accomplished this feat not at the comfortable room temperature that was claimed in the original research paper. Moreover, the researchers observed the material transitioning in and out of the zero-resistance state under the influence of a strong magnetic field — another behaviour typical of superconducting materials.
Nevertheless, for the scientific community to reach a consensus, further evidence is necessary.
Mason, for instance, states that she needs to “see the actual data of the confirming papers to make a real opinion”.