Room-temperature superconductor: Is the Holy Grail within grasp?

Korean researchers claim to have developed a superconductor that can operate at room temperature and ambient pressure. But many scientists are sceptical and waiting to replicate the results of their research. Here’s why they’re not popping the champagne bottle yet:

Why is this research making us all sit up?

Scientists from multiple South Korean institutions have published two papers (not peer reviewed) where they claim to have developed a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor. The superconducting material named LK-99 is a mix of powdered compounds of lead, oxygen, sulphur and phosphorus. When heated at very high temperatures, it forms a dark grey solid. If the results can be replicated in other labs, it could be a monumental discovery for the simple reason that getting superconductors to operate at room temperature and ambient pressure is pretty much the Holy Grail of physics.

Are superconductors all that important?

Absolutely. Conductors like copper, gold, silver and aluminium heat up because they resist electricity flow when it passes through them. Superconductors transmit electricity with almost 100% efficiency. They have important applicability in our daily lives, too. In 1933, Walther Meissner and Robert Ochsenfeld discovered that superconductors are also perfect diamagnets (they repel magnetic fields, known as the Meissner effect), making them ideal for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). That is now an all- important health diagnostic tool. Machines and magnetic levitation trains are other applications.

How will room-temperature superconductors help?

The temperature of a superconductor, known as the critical temperature, is typically below 10 Kelvin (-263 degrees Celsius). Room temperature is 20-22°C. Superconductors at room temperature can cut the cost of electricity grids, computer chips, magnets for maglev trains, energy-storage devices and fusion reactors by saving electricity and money on coolants.

Why are some scientists sceptical?

Because the research is not peer-reviewed, and the results need to be replicated by others. Sceptics are wary of experimental errors and imperfections in the LK-99 sample. Notably, Nature magazine retracted a 2020 article by Ranga P. Dias of the University of Rochester and others on developing a superconductor that worked at about 15°C, as the results couldn’t be replicated. Dias and colleagues also claim a new superconducter of lutetium, hydrogen and nitrogen at room temperature, but doubts persist.

Can computing benefit from this research?

Computers process information with bits—ones and zeroes. But two bits can only represent one of four possible states at one time. Superconductors are the building blocks of quantum computers that use quantum bits, or qubits, to process ones and zeroes at the same time — it’s like running four computers in one. The physical qubits are typically super-cooled to avoid errors. This research could get them to work at room temperature and ambient pressure without the need for elaborate cooling systems.


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