Aug 4, 2023 - Science

Scientists race to replicate high-stakes claim of a new superconductor

Illustration of a question mark combined with a lightning bolt shape

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A team of scientists claimed to develop a material that could act as a superconductor at room temperature — a holy grail of physics that researchers around the world are now trying to replicate.

Why it matters: Superconductors that can operate at room temperature and ambient pressure hold promise for quantum computing, a more efficient energy grid, producing energy from fusion and more innovation.

How it works: Superconducting materials can conduct electricity without losing energy in the form of heat, which happens as electrons move through a material and interact with atoms.

  • Today's superconductors — like the magnets used in MRI machines, for example — require ultra-cold temperatures to operate.
  • A superconducting material will repel magnetic fields and a telltale sign of one is it will float above a magnet and stay suspended in place, even when it is rotated.
  • 'There's no physics reason it can't work," Andrew Cote, an engineer who has worked on superconductors for particle accelerators and fusion energy, says about superconductors. He is chronicling the developments in real-time on social media.
  • It is a materials science problem that researchers have long tried to solve, with instances where progress is reported only to be retracted or not replicated in other labs.

Catch up quick: Two preprint papers, which haven't been peer-reviewed, posted late last month by researchers in South Korea outlined their process for using lead-apatite and copper to produce a new superconducting material — LK-99.

  • They also posted a video of a flake of the material partially hovering over a magnet.
  • Since then, researchers in labs around the world have tried to recreate LK-99 and simulate whether the reported technique could produce a superconducting material.

Where it stands: Two studies published this week couldn't replicate creating the material using the technique, another reported creating the material and measuring zero resistance but still at a cool -260°F, and a handful of others were able to make the material and replicate a magnetic property of superconductivity.

  • Other scientists have run computer simulations of LK-99 and found it had the potential to be superconductive at higher temperatures and ambient pressures.
  • None of this is conclusive proof either way, Cote says, and the research continues.
  • Experts in the field are voicing skepticism and point to several caveats in the original work as well as follow-up studies.

The bottom line: "At the very least, this is a really interesting new material that opens up a new avenue for exploring superconductivity at high temperatures and ambient pressures," Cote says.

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