An extraordinary claim by scientists in South Korea has sparked wild hopes of a utopian future where no health condition goes undiagnosed, trains float above their tracks, and – most importantly – your phone’s battery life is incredible.
LK-99 may sound like little more than a Star Wars extra, but has been tipped as a once-in-a-lifetime physics breakthrough that would land those behind it with a Nobel Prize.
That’s because it’s purported to be a practical superconductor – one that works at room temperature and so could bring the power of a particle accelerator to the masses.
Its discovery, detailed in two papers from South Korea in late July, sent social media into a frenzy – but the world’s scientists are far from convinced we’re on the precipice of a revolution just yet.
Hold up, you’re probably wondering how we got here…
First, we need to know the basics – just like there’s no Superman without Clark Kent, there’s no superconductor without, well, a normal conductor.
In this analogy, Clark Kent’s your bog-standard electrical conductor, a material which lets electricity flow through easily due to its free-moving charged particles.
The most widely-used is copper – it’s key to everything from your iPhone cable to your town’s power lines.
But like Clark Kent, sometimes a normal conductor isn’t enough. Just as Clark has to put up with glasses and overly tight shirts, copper has to deal with resistance, meaning some electrical energy can be lost as it travels.
When Clark swaps his journalist attire for some spandex and a cape, he flies freely through the sky and pretty much nothing can stop him. Superconductors are just as powerful: materials that can carry electricity with no resistance.
They also allow us to make incredibly strong magnets.
The catch with Superman, besides the whole Kryptonite thing, is he requires energy from the sun to harness his power. With superconductors, it’s that they need it to be really, really cold.
So they’re not particularly practical right now?
There are plenty of materials that can operate as a superconductor, but put it this way: the “high temperature” ones only work in conditions of around -150C (-238F), achieved with cryogenics using substances like liquid nitrogen.
It means their use is limited to highly specialised, powerful equipment like quantum computers and particle accelerators. Indeed, they certainly won’t be rocking up at an iPhone announcement event any time soon.
The only place you’re likely to have come across them if you’re not a physicist is if you’ve had an MRI scan, where those aforementioned magnets are vital to processing accurate medical imaging.
Dr Mark Ainslie, a superconductors expert from King’s College London, tells Sky News the “holy grail” of superconductor research is to find one that works at normal temperatures.
“If no cryogenic system is needed,” he says, “it would revolutionise all kinds of things that use electricity”.
The other key attribute lacking from most superconducting materials is the ability to make a practical wire out of it, which is what’s made copper such a good everyday conductor for so many years.
So what is LK-99 meant to be?
It is said to be a relatively common material called lead apatite, bolstered by some copper atoms.
The scientists in South Korea claim it can conduct electricity with no resistance in a normal setting, and can expel magnetic fields powerful enough to levitate above a magnet (known as the Meissner effect).
None have returned to requests for comment about their findings, which have not been peer-reviewed (the gold standard for academic research) and are being verified by a South Korean committee.
Meanwhile, researchers from other countries are racing to see if they can reproduce their results.
One team from China‘s Huazhong University of Science and Technology posted a video appearing to show LK-99 levitating over a magnet. This is important because true superconductors can float over a magnet in any orientation, without spinning like a compass.
Wide-eyed optimists on social media were quick to suggest we were looking at the future of trains (or, finally, a real Back To The Future hoverboard), but scientists haven’t been so quick to drum up the hype.
‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof’
Oxford University professors have described the findings as “interesting, but not yet wholly convincing”.
So far, nobody else is believed to have had any luck reproducing the purported results. US physicist Sinead Griffin attempted recreating LK-99 using a government supercomputer and could not secure conclusive proof.
Previous claims about the discovery of room-temperature superconductivity have also been debunked. Recent papers from New York psychist Ranga Dias have become notorious in the scientific community, having been retracted and subjected to investigation.
Dr Ainslie says: “We’re cautious about these kinds of claims. It would be fantastic, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. We’re waiting to see what happens with the replication efforts going on at the moment.
“Until we have that, and some kind of formal paper that is peer-reviewed, we should be cautious.”
Indulge me, though… what if LK-99 is legit?
All the world’s problems will disappear.
Well not really, alas, but it would be pretty incredible.
Eric Toone, a scientist-turned-investor at Bill Gates‘ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, says LK-99 would be “completely game-changing if it’s right”.
Never mind the impact it could have in fields where superconductors are already used, it could mean that such unlimited power really does make its way into your home one day.
Dr Ainslie says: “We lose electrical power in a conventional copper system because it has resistance – your laptop heats up because of resistance in the wires and the circuits, the same way you lose energy in your house.
“Without cryogenics, a superconductor could theoretically be used in any electronic device.
“A superconducting laptop, smartphone, wiring in your home – all with less energy use and less wasted energy.”
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‘Even good people can be fooled’
Beyond that, think high-speed, energy-efficient public transport, more productive wind turbines, and making the promise of nuclear fusion far more viable.
Although even if LK-99 was the real deal, turning into something as practical as copper is another step. Dr Ainslie reckons it would take “a decade or more to refine” any viable room-temperature superconductor for practical use.
So for now, given the red flags (including some discrepancies between the authors listed on the papers) LK-99 will remain under the category of “unidentified superconducting objects”.
Yes, USOs are a thing.
Mike Norman, a condensed matter physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, says: “There’s a long history of USOs, including some very famous people who thought they had a superconductor and they didn’t.
“It’s like anything in science – you can be fooled. Even good people can be fooled.”
Given the enormous interest in LK-99, the scientific community likely won’t make us wait long to find out.