What is the LK-99 superconductor? Everyone is talking about how it could change the world, but experts say we’re still a long way off – DNyuz

What is the LK-99 superconductor? Everyone is talking about how it could change the world, but experts say we’re still a long way off

Electricity is inefficient compared to what it could be. But electricity that travels along a superconductor barely loses energy along the way.

Present-day superconductors, however, function under costly special environments — what if we could change that?

That’s the premise behind LK-99, a possible superconductor material that scientists in South Korea say they have devised, which has been dominating headlines and social media posts in the past week or so.

The LK-99 material is a compound comprised of lead, oxygen, and phosphorous, the scientists describe in two preprint papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed. They discuss how they doped the material with copper, which, they speculate, may have distorted the chain of lead atoms, creating channels along which the superconductivity occurs, per Science.

However, many experts are skeptical that the material actually does what the scientists claim. Therefore, whether LK-99 is actually a breakthrough remains to be seen until others can replicate its results.

To that end, some experts are trying, but this holy grail has eluded scientists for many years, so the prospects are still a long way off, experts told Insider.

Why room-temperature superconductors are so elusive

“The holy grail would be to get something that was superconducting at room temperature,” said Leonard Kahn, chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Rhode Island’s College.

The problem is that scientists are playing a guessing game for now, swapping out materials to try and raise the critical temperature.

Elements like tantalum and mercury all have superconducting capabilities, for example, but they have to be chilled to about -450 degrees Fahrenheit. Some compounds become superconductive at higher temperatures and can be cooled with liquid nitrogen at around -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yet other materials become superconducting at warmer temperatures, “but you need to have them under such high pressures that they’re impractical for any applications,” Kahn said.

LK-99 isn’t the first claim of its kind. There have been similar attempts in the past that don’t quite seem to have panned out. One piece on the subject, published in the science journal Nature in 2020, was later retracted.

Ultimately, achieving a room-temperature superconductor would “require breakthroughs in understanding the fundamental principles behind superconductivity, inventing new materials, or discovering novel ways of increasing the critical temperature,” Edwin Fohtung, associate professor in materials science and engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told Insider in an email.

Where and how superconductors are used today

“It’s not that we do not have superconductors, but we can only make that work under extremely high pressures, and at very low temperatures,” said Elif Akcali, an associate professor at the University of Florida who teaches industrial and systems engineering.

“When that’s the case, you’re putting in so much energy to make that work,” Akcali said. “For me, from a business perspective, it’s losing its value.”

Superconductors expel magnetic fields and are diamagnetic, a phenomenon known as the Meissner effect. Kahn explained that magnets float on them if you place a magnet close to it.

Currently, MRI machines, quantum computers, and magnetic levitation trains all use superconductivity. Cooling an MRI magnet requires about 2,000 liters of liquid helium, which is both expensive and in short supply.

But finding a superconductor that works at room temperature would have a huge impact on energy, transportation and other industries. Take power stations, for example:

“If you had superconducting wires instead of the regular wires that they’re using, it would be the equivalent of having 5% to 10% more power stations, and you wouldn’t be putting any more carbon into the atmosphere,” Kahn said. “The opportunities for that would be tremendous, but we’re not there yet.”

Any revolutionary use of superconductors will still take time

We’re a while away from making a radical shift in superconductor use, experts said. At minimum, multiple labs will first need to repeat and verify the experiment to make sure LK-99, or something like it, really works.

And even a workable material will mean companies will have to change how they make things.

For example, take the case of chip manufacturing. There’s still a question as to whether this type of superconductor material can be successfully incorporated into the chip manufacturing process in a way that is economically viable and not too burdensome, said Siddharth Joshi, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

“Currently, we don’t design chips assuming you can have superconductors on there,” Joshi said.

“Using superconductors in the design of the chips could lead to interesting designs, but the technology would first need to be mature enough to use it in chips,” he said.

But again, if it does work, that could mean we can produce chips that require less energy to function, which means they can do more and take up less space. Your phones and laptops, for one, could get even more compact, said Navid Asadi, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Florida.

Low-energy chips could also help machines do a lot more. Asadi explained that for newer technologies like autonomous and electric vehicles, this could mean better navigating the types of questions machines face on the road.

“Should I keep the car between the lines? Am I going to pass this car? Should I brake? Do I need to adjust my speed or brake? These are all decisions constantly made in the chips, and they need energy,” he said. “So low power energy chips is one major area in chip design.”

The potential that chips could be faster and more efficient thanks to superconductors also means they could support the large amounts of computing power and energy required to sustain other artificial intelligence efforts including generative AI, said Dale Rogers, a supply chain expert and professor at the Arizona State University business school.

“This kind of superconductor breakthrough, if it’s real, can really enable huge advancements and processing abilities in artificial intelligence,” he said.

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