The Elements of Innovation Discovered

A superconductive LK-99 controversy erupts

Metal Tech News - August 2, 2023

Possible Nobel Prize-winning invention has the wider science community in a frenzy; initial claims shrouded with skepticism.

If you follow any kind of cutting-edge, pioneering, and borderline science fiction-level technology news, you may have come across LK-99. What had started as a likely dubious claim by more doubtful researchers has become a veritable online race for a room-temperature superconductor that, by the apparent furious attempts to replicate the claims, lends some credence to the original assertions of a material that could change the world.

On July 22, two mysterious papers were suddenly published on arXiv.org – a website of scientific papers that are often the first step to peer-reviewed publications, but not yet a total confirmation of any scientific claims.

Published roughly two hours apart, both papers claim to have created the world's first room-temperature-and-pressure superconductor.

The first was reportedly written quickly and hastily by three researchers – Sukbae Lee, Ji-Hoon Kim, and Young-Wan Kwon; the second appeared much more detailed and held six authors – Sukbae Lee, Ji-Hoon Kim, Hyun-Tak Kim, Sungyeon Im, SooMin An, and Keun Ho Auh.

The third author from the first paper, Young-Wan Kwon, was not included in the second.

Although the complete story has yet to come out, it has been verified that on July 28, Kwon presented the findings at a symposium held at Korea University. However, that same day, Yonhap News Agency published an article quoting an official from Korea University as saying Kwon was no longer in contact with the university and that the article also quoted Lee saying Kwon had left the Quantum Energy Research Centre four months prior; that the academic papers on LK-99 were not finished; and that the papers had been uploaded to arXiv without the other authors' permission.

Mysteries and suspense aside, the purported real-world superconductive properties of the material labeled "LK-99" are incredible.

Significance of superconductors

Since its initial discovery in 1911, many scientists, including Nobel laureates, have struggled over the nature of superconductivity.

Since then, superconductors have been a holy grail effort by researchers akin to nuclear fusion due to their near-limitless pros and virtually no cons.

Simply put, something that is superconductive means it can conduct electricity without energy loss. However, this state has required the material to be cooled below a certain temperature to become superconductive, generally below 133 degrees Kelvin (minus 140 degrees Celsius or 452 degrees Fahrenheit).

Additionally, superconductive materials balance magnetism without degradation – where typical magnets will repel one another, a superconductive magnetic field finds equilibrium, allowing currents to flow seamlessly.

Needing a great deal of energy to create a super-cool and high-pressure environment for an energy-lossless material has not been ideal.

Thus, with a new material suddenly appearing on the scientific scene that can purportedly operate as a superconductor at room temperature and without needing extremely high pressures (typically more than 100,000 times ordinary atmospheric pressure), skepticism was alight.

Strangely enough, the synthesis for LK-99 is simple and, even more so, has been a kind of open secret for nearly a century.

Finely grind and mix lanarkite – a naturally occurring mineral which is a type of lead sulfate – and copper phosphide – a compound of copper and phosphorous – and bake at 925 degrees Celsius (1,967 degrees Fahrenheit) in a vacuum chamber for a day and, voilà, instant superconductor.

The ability to discover and synthesize LK-99 has been theoretically available since the times of the Industrial Revolution; with modern technology, this could be achieved in a garage or home lab.

Nevertheless, the immediate reaction online was a rapid mix of doubt and wonder. Fraudulent claims had occurred before – a previous superconductor claim stated only 10,000 units of atmospheric pressure was needed, which was later debunked.

With the possibility of a Nobel prize on the line, an immediate opinion suggests the first publication was a ploy to win the lauded title, as only a maximum of three people can receive the prize.

Furthermore, more toward Kwon's discredit, the report of his returning to the research institute and causing a reported scene paints the picture further in questionable colors.

Rough history on LK-99

Based on online investigations, Sukbae Lee and Ji-hoon Kim were the original discoverers of LK-99, a name that represents Lee and Kim's discovery in 1999.

In graduate school at the time, their mentor, Professor Tong-Shik Choi of Korea University, was a specialist in superconductors and theorized the possibility of superconductivity with the material, but it required more research. Ultimately, the pair shelved the project after graduate school.

Moving forward to 2017, Lee and Kim have successful scientific careers and are called back by their professor, who encouraged them to complete the research. However, without any backing – particularly on the English-speaking international level – the team partnered with Young-Wan Kwon and allegedly somehow acquired funding.

An initial paper was submitted to the journal Nature in 2020 but was rejected due to similarly-presented research on room-temperature superconductors earlier that year.

By early 2021, Lee and Kim filed a patent application, whereas a Korean trademark for LK-99 was filed in early April this year.

Finally, the findings were submitted to the journal APL Materials on July 23 for peer review. Around this time, the confusion began.

Superconductor race

In a statement given by Kim after the early release of the paper, he said he is aware of the skepticism but believes that other researchers should try and replicate his team's work to settle the issue.

Once the findings are published in a peer-reviewed journal, a process that he says he is currently participating in, he will support anyone who wants to create and test LK-99 for themselves.

Presently, eight leaders in academia are participating in replicating the results, while at least seven private entities or individuals are conducting their own experiments.

An online table composing all the attempts is ongoing and being updated as we speak.

Currently, multiple bodies have completed synthesis and have varying results that have either failed or are indeterminate or inconclusive with possible likelihoods of success but will require more testing to replicate accurately.

With the bulk of the attempts from China, the Argonne National Lab and private synthesis by an engineer at Varda Space Industries in America, a reported unsubstantiated claim from a private researcher in Russia, and a lab out of France and India, a race toward verifying a breakthrough of the century is happening.

If the claims of LK-99 are true, an unimaginable technology can begin to enter into the world. However, if false, the reputations of Lee and Kim's original undergraduate dream could be smeared for all time.

 

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