A team of Korean researchers may have just made the greatest physics discovery of the 21st century. The researchers believe that they have found a superconductor, a special kind of material that exhibits 0 or almost 0 resistance to electrical currents and expels magnetic fields, that functions at room temperature and ambient pressure.
You can think of resistance almost like friction fighting against a car’s tires. As an electrical current flows through a material, some of that electricity is lost to heat like how cars lose momentum due to friction. The amount of resistance depends on the resistance of the material. Some substances that are often called insulators like wood or plastic innately have high resistance, meaning more electrical current is lost when a current passes through them than other materials.
A superconductor is the complete opposite of an insulator, ensuring that the current flows perfectly through them without losing any (or almost any) of that current.
Before this discovery, no one had been able to find a material exhibiting superconductor properties at both room temperature and ambient pressure. Other superconductors have to be held at tremendously high pressures or extremely low temperatures (close to absolute zero) to function. This makes them totally impractical for most potential applications.
This may not seem like a world-changing breakthrough to those who aren’t well-versed in material science or electrical engineering but if confirmed it certainly will be. The discovery is especially promising because the materials and processes needed to form the ambient superconductor are reportedly trivial.
What is This Ambient Superconductor Made From?
The team published a preprint of the paper on arXiv, a popular archive of preprints, that outlined how it made the ambient superconductor, named LK-99, as well as proof of its incredible properties. The preprint went viral almost immediately after a Princeton physics graduate, Alex Kaplan, Tweeted a thread detailing his and his friends’ immense excitement over the paper.
Today might have seen the biggest physics discovery of my lifetime. I don't think people fully grasp the implications of an ambient temperature / pressure superconductor. Here's how it could totally change our lives.
— Alex Kaplan (@alexkaplan0) July 26, 2023
The paper was especially exciting because it seems like LK-99 is actually quite easy to make. Kaplan estimates that it can be prepared in as little as 34 hours with about as simple equipment as it gets.
2. According to the authors, the LK-99 material can be prepared in about 34 hrs with extremely basic lab equipment (a mortar & pestle, basic vacuum, and furnace). These results could replicate within days-weeks. pic.twitter.com/4opttoVq1z
— Alex Kaplan (@alexkaplan0) July 26, 2023
If the team had found an ambient superconductor that was incredibly difficult to synthesize and required rare materials, it still would have been a game-changing discovery but this is even more fantastic. This find is so impressive that scientists are already predicting that the top 3 authors will win the Nobel Prize in physics.
What Could LK-99 Be Used For?
So if this discovery is so important, what are the potential uses and benefits of LK-99? There’s quite a long list but one of the most exciting is in simple transmission lines. A tremendous amount of electricity is wasted due to the small amount of inherent resistance in transmission lines.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, about 5-6% of the total electricity transmitted and distributed in the US is lost, amounting to over 202 billion kWh. If LK-99 works as the team says it does, it could replace major power lines to tremendously reduce the amount of electricity lost due to resistance. It wouldn’t prevent all losses as the resistance of wires isn’t the only way current is lost. However, it could still save an exorbitant amount of electricity every year and quickly become a monumental force in the fight against climate change.
Superconductors are also useful for the magnetic fields that they can generate when large currents are passed through them. Superconducting magnets are what power MRI scanners and levitating trains. If this discovery is real, both technologies could become much easier and cheaper to build, bringing great developments in healthcare and transportation.
Fusion reactors also use superconducting magnets to contain plasma and keep the fusion reaction going. Scientists recently were able to generate more energy from a fusion reactor than it took to start it, a massive accomplishment that has been in the works for decades. With both material science and fusion technology advancing this quickly, fusion reactors may become commonplace before too long.
If all of those incredible technologies weren’t enough, superconductors can be used as qubits in quantum computers as well. This is why quantum computers have to be cooled to near absolute zero. But if LK-99 is really an ambient superconductor and is easily replicable, it could be used to make exponentially larger quantum computers that don’t need complex and extremely expensive cooling systems.
These are only some of the most exciting potential uses for this kind of material but there are oodles of others that could change the world in their own ways. But the question remains: Is this ambient superconductor actually real?
But Is This Ambient Superconductor Actually Real?
It’s important to be cautious about this find as multiple teams of researchers have claimed to have discovered ambient superconductors in the past and none have been replicated so far. It’s also important to remember that this is only a preprint (or is it?) and hasn’t been replicated or fully peer-reviewed.
Some parts of the scientific community were extremely excited about the preprint, saying that it was the most promising claim of an ambient superconductor to date. However, many others were not convinced.
In fact, Alex Kaplan, the Princeton graduate who started the viral craze with his Twitter thread, has actually already changed his mind and doesn’t believe the findings are legitimate. It seems that he was convinced by the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland.
The CMTC published a Tweet thread dissecting the paper, criticizing it heavily nearly from beginning to end. The thread lambasts the team, claiming that there are many errors in it that suggest they know very little about superconductors. It even goes as far as to say that they would be awarded an F if the paper was an undergraduate project.
It is now time to do the unpleasant: deconstruct the non-experimental parts of the Korean room temp SC claims. This is relevant because the theoretical/background SC discussions in these papers are so naïve that if it were an undergraduate project at Maryland we would give an F
— Condensed Matter Theory Center (@condensed_the) July 27, 2023
The thread is admittedly impossible to grasp without a strong understanding of superconductor physics so it’s hard to tell how damning it is. It also seems like the critiques are mostly focused on the theoretical musings of the paper and not the data suggesting that LK-99 is a superconductor.
They do note that their criticisms don’t necessarily mean that the researchers didn’t actually find a room-temperature superconductor. It just seriously casts doubt on their claims and especially their expertise. It’s certainly possible that they did actually make this incredible find but just don’t fully understand the physics.
Scientists at the CMTC weren’t the only ones to criticize the paper and even Sam Altman, the founder of ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, Tweeted that he thought that LK-99 was just a diamagnet, not a superconductor.
i desperately want to believe but i think we are getting overexcited about a diamagnet
— Sam Altman (@sama) July 27, 2023
It seemed like the scientific community on Twitter calmed down after experts jumped in and gave their thoughts but minutes before this article was published, Alex Kaplan found a peer-reviewed version of the paper and Tweeted his rekindled excitement.
Holy crap. Did anyone else see the peer reviewed paper yet?? It clearly shows the specific heat discontinuity and other major changes.
I am shook. I am also so confused. I've been heartbroken before pic.twitter.com/N3wgPmsTUr
— Alex Kaplan (@alexkaplan0) July 27, 2023
It seems like this version of the paper is much improved, with data and graphs that many of the naysayers used to discount the paper. The strangest part is that the journal it was published in, the Journal of the Korean Crystal Growth and Crystal Technology, says that it was published on April 30th, 2023.
This is quite bizarre as it would assuredly be publicized heavily months ago by the researchers, the journal, or both. There’s no doubt that both parties know how massive of a discovery an ambient temperature superconductor is. It’s possible it just didn’t reach English-speaking circles, which drove most of the excitement on Twitter.
The past few days have been an exciting whirlwind in physics and material science but the discovery may still be bunk. Until it is replicated by independent scientists and labs, which should be quite quick and easy if the paper is correct, we won’t know for sure either way.
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