LK-99, Explained: The Room-Temperature Superconductor That Became an Online Sensation

We're not breaking down the energy grids across the world just yet.
Published On August 07, 2023

A floating rock took over the internet, setting aside the era of AI for what is being lauded as the discovery of a lifetime. The LK-99 superconductor promises to “open a new era for humankind,” but DIY enthusiasts and researchers struggle in the race to corroborate bold claims.

Reddit, “X” (formerly Twitter), and other online communities were hoarded over the promise of a breakthrough discovery — one claiming to be “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor.”

The claims of the new material — dubbed LK-99 (after the study’s authors) — suggest that said superconductor can operate at a normal temperature and pressure. And while initial efforts by researchers and amateurs of replicating the results have fallen short, the promise alone has been worth all the hype.

What is a superconductor?

Resistance is an inherent property of all materials, one which largely governs how energy is transported and utilized. When you pass an electric current through a material, it opposes this flow with some degree of resistance — proportional to a property known as the “resistivity” of said material.

A superconductor is a material that allows an electric current without any resistance, although a number of other properties collectively verify whether it’s a superconductor:

  •  The levitating effect has become an iconic phenomenon: occurring due to the Meissner effect. This happens as a magnetic field is repelled by a superconductor, which causes it to float above the magnet.

How do superconductors work?

Every material is made of a complex arrangement of atoms — partly responsible for different electrical resistances. And despite this seemingly breakthrough discovery, we’ve known about the existence of superconductors since 1911.

So how do we achieve this state of zero resistance? By generating some unearthly conditions.

Superconductivity has previously only been observed at crushing pressures like one million atmospheres or temperatures approaching absolute zero (or simply bone-chilling cold).

  • Colder temperatures inhibit the movement of otherwise erratic sub-atomic particles, and as the movement of electrons becomes more organized, collisions and resistivity start to decrease.
  • This trend continues until the thermometer drops below a critical temperature — at which resistivity suddenly plummets to zero, resulting in a superconducting material.

While not everything can be made into a superconductor, we’ve known about several materials that allow a “friction-free” flow of electricity at their own unique temperatures:

  • mercury at 4.2 K
  • lead at 7 K
  • niobium at 9.2 K

In simpler terms, mercury becomes a superconductor at 4 K (or negative 273.15°C) or a temperature just 4 degrees above absolute zero — the lowest temperature possible, at which all motion ceases to exist.

What’s LK-99, and what makes it so special?

A team of South Korean scientists (who have been quietly working on the project since 1999) posted two papers describing the making of LK-99, accompanied by data that said it exhibited superconducting properties at ambient conditions.

  • It is a polycrystalline lead-apatite compound (lead, phosphorus, and oxygen) infused with copper.
  • The papers were accompanied by a video of the superconductor showing it to be floating over a magnet by expelling magnetic fields — one of the hallmarks of superconductivity through the Meissner effect.
  • “Our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind,” stated the authors.

Tweets accumulating millions of views since then have lauded the finding as “the biggest physics discovery of my lifetime” and “a watershed moment for humanity.”

Further hype ensued as Sinéad Griffin of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory performed density functional theory calculations to compute the potential properties of LK-99, explaining her findings in a short post.

  • Beginning with the fact that her paper “did *not* prove nor give evidence of superconductivity,” the post derived a simple conclusion: physics suggests it could work.

X and Wikipedia have become a source of extensive real-time coverage for the topic, but experts in the field continue to voice skepticism across several avenues.

A still from The Witcher Season 3 Volume 2 showing Yennefer.

Researchers struggle to replicate the “relatively simple alchemy” of LK-99 owing to a cloudy process described by the study authors.

Image by @alexkaplan0 via X

What fuels the skepticism?

The recipe of chaos spread across the internet as the authors suggested that their superconductor could be replicated within days or weeks with basic lab equipment — but initial efforts have said otherwise.

  • Researchers and DIY enthusiasts have raced to replicate these results, but two separate experimental efforts by a team in New Delhi and in Beijing that the synthesized material did not exhibit superconductivity.
  • “The general public seems oddly pumped about how ‘easy’ the 4-day, multi-step, small batch, solid state synthesis is,” tweeted Jennifer Fowlie, a condensed matter physicist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
  • However, some experts suggest that both teams’ materials differ slightly from the original, acknowledged by the authors of the papers themselves. Others have detailed how “messy” the creation process is.
  • As yet unverified videos of replicated samples accumulate online, experts warn that “floaty rocks” just aren’t enough evidence — as a diamagnetic material like graphite is known to levitate, something that would make the alleged superconductor no more than a desk toy.
  • Others have called the data from the authors “sloppy,” with theorist Michael Norman telling Science that “they come off as real amateurs.”

While a claim worth checking out, much of the research is being fueled by initial skepticism — with research institutes racing to refute the Korean team’s findings, especially after previous blots left behind by similar claims.

As reported in a 2020 issue of Nature, University of Rochester physicist Ranga Dias and colleagues were able to create a “photochemically transformed carbonaceous sulfur hydride system,” — a compound made from hydrogen sulfide, methane, and hydrogen that achieved superconductivity at 15°C (58°F).

  • However, Nature later retracted the article owing to concerns regarding how the data in the paper may have been processed and interpreted.
  • The team later published a report on another superconductor — a nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride — which showed superconductivity at a temperature of 21°C, although it still required immense amounts of pressure.

However, shadows of some shady business had already been cast. Ultimately, wider acceptance of a study by the scientific community and robust peer-reviewed data is what substantiates the claims.

What could be achieved with a “room-temperature superconductor?”

Of course, a room-temperature superconductor is bound to win the Nobel Prize, but a key element of the degree of change it would bring depends on whether we could mass-produce it.

  • Superconducting materials are already used in crucial applications such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and Japan’s high-speed maglev train — both requiring the maintenance of extremely cold temperatures to operate.

Even if LK-99 could put power comparable to a quantum computer in your hands, that’s not where its immediate appeal lies. With billions of dollars lost to electricity losses in transmission and distribution, a room-temperature superconductor could fulfill the dream of friction-free electricity — transforming the energy economy, fusion energy, and quantum computing by leaps and bounds.

 

Update August 11th, 2023, 3:15 AM EST: The Condensed Matter Theory Center reported on Tuesday that “LK99 is NOT a superconductor, not even at room temperatures.