What’s the deal with LK-99?

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

If you’ve been living under a rock, you probably missed the ongoing story around LK-99 — a claimed room-temperature superconductor. Last week, one member of the Korean research team responsible for developing LK-99 apparently went rogue and published a pre-review draft version of a paper describing this new material and claiming that it was a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor. This set off an absolute frenzy on social media: People were live streaming attempts to replicate it; a Russian soil scientist claimed to have produced the material in her kitchen; it was a total spectacle. The day after the story broke, we put out a word of caution. The same day this was going on, there was a retraction about another supposed high-temperature superconductor; this kind of thing gets reported from time to time but so far hasn’t worked out. While I definitely stand by that initial take, LK-99 was not immediately debunked. There’s still significant contention and a lack of understanding around the mechanisms at . There are also an increasing number of papers and groups claiming to have replicated at least some elements of the Korean team’s results. 

So, are we about to enter a new era of ultrafast computing, lossless sustainable energy, and more? You should still temper your expectations. There are some big challenges ahead, even if LK-99 turns out to be a room-temperature superconductor:

  • Production: LK-99 relies on a very specific set of crystal structures to produce its unique effects. The method of production described by the Korean scientists and employed by groups trying to replicate it have very low yields. We’ll need a production method that is high yielding and reliable in terms of the crystal structure and purity and performance of the material that’s produced. This is entirely possible: We have a semiconductor fabrication ecosystem that is well designed for this type of challenge. The scale of material produced by that ecosystem is relatively low, so it’s going to be quite tough to produce sufficient wire for a transmission cable if we’re using semiconductor fabrication techniques.
  • Current carrying capacity: A superconductor still has limitations, particularly how much electricity it can carry while maintaining its superconducting function. Essentially, it’s possible to put a few electrons across it, but if you try to ramp up the amperage, there could be a lot of issues. Again, this is important for energy applications: You need to be able to move a large number of electrons to do anything useful on the scale of the energy grid. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the performance of superconductors in this regard.
  • Durability: This is the big one: Many applications that could benefit from a room-temperature superconductor will require a lifetime that’s measured in years. For something in the energy grid, it’s going to need to be much longer than that: You don’t want to be replacing power cables every five years or even every decade. Those types of infrastructure need to last for 40 years at least. If the material degrades either from reacting with its environment or from current being transmitted across it, that will limit its potential uses in many of the most important and impactful applications. At this point, there’s just a lot we don’t know about the behavior of this material, how it functions, and its interactions in a wide range of real-world environments.

Now that I’ve thrown cold water all over LK99, let me back up and say this is potentially a really big deal. There’s a reason why room-temperature superconductors have been considered the Holy Grail of materials science: There’s a huge number of applications that could be improved by superconductivity, and more than that, there’s a huge number of potential applications that have not yet emerged. I had the opportunity to chat with the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association this week (look for that on the Innovation Matters podcast), and I asked him why fusion is happening now. One of the big things he pointed to was advances in magnetics. It’s unlikely that anyone developing those magnets had fusion in mind, but it’s still a benefit. A lot of the great, impactful products like the iPhone have come from the combination of tangentially related improvements in different technologies. The fact that we’ve potentially developed a room-temperature superconductor at the same time that we’re ramping up green electricity production is an exciting combination of facts. It’s hard to know what could emerge from this environment, but at a time when it seems like all the news about climate and innovation is depressing, this is definitely a reason for optimism. 

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