The Superconductor Sensation Has Fizzled, and That’s Fine

It’s rare that condensed matter physics is the talk of the town. But recently a remarkable amount of Internet discussion and news coverage has revolved around a purported advance in the field: bombshell claims from a team of South Korean scientists professing to have discovered an ambient-pressure, room-temperature superconductor. Independent confirmation of the researchers’ claims would’ve meant that their buzzy new material—a compound of copper, lead, phosphorus and oxygen dubbed “LK-99”—could conduct electricity frictionlessly, without any loss of current, in a wider array of environmental conditions than any other known substance. Such a capability could, in principle, lead to revolutionary advances in power plants, energy grids, computers and transportation.

Yet weeks removed from the release of the initial research findings, those claims seem all but debunked. After a fortnight of unfettered positivity and interest on social media (including some amateur experimental attempts that were streamed on Twitch), authoritative efforts from physicists around the world to double-check the South Korean team’s claims have mostly deflated the hype. All of LK-99’s bizarre behavior that hinted at superconductivity—such as its partial levitation over a magnet—can apparently be explained away by odd but distinctly nonsuperconductive properties, such as ferromagnetism, the same structural quirk that allows magnetic fields to permeate iron and reconfigure the metal’s electrons.

Considering the new work, “[LK-99’s] room-temperature superconductivity seems less and less likely,” says Nadya Mason, a materials physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The experimental papers showing ferromagnetism were pretty convincing, and the new theories are also more carefully done.” Richard Greene, a physicist studying superconductors at the University of Maryland, generally agrees. “ It is still a bit too early to put the nail in the coffin,” he says. “But we are getting close. The coffin is there, the nails are ready, and a hammer is ready, too.”

Of course, the boom-and-bust cycle of LK-99 is a classic demonstration of science in action. The scientific method worked as it should. But in the fading afterglow of LK-99’s social-media-fueled rise and fall, it’s probably worth examining one dimension of what might’ve driven all that excitement in the first place. Many Internet posters, along with some researchers and journalists, have positioned a room-temperature superconductor as a technological panacea for climate change that could accelerate the world’s transition away from reliance on fossil fuels.

On the heels of Earth’s hottest month in recorded history, it’s easy to understand why people are eager for positive news and signs of progress. After all, with the perfect material, electricity could flow along transmission lines with flawless efficiency—but that’s just the start of potentially revolutionary applications. In principle, a room-temperature superconductor could lead to more compact wind turbines that are easier to build and less resource-intensive, says Susie Speller, a materials scientist specializing in superconductors at the University of Oxford. Electronic devices from computers to electric vehicles would need far less power if they all contained some ideal superconducting substance. Deeper into the land of hypotheticals, the right superconductor could enable scalable nuclear fusion reactors to offer an abundant source of carbon-free energy, Speller says.

Even if LK-99 had proved to be a room-temperature superconductor, its feasibility for addressing energy and climate concerns would rest on an exceedingly flimsy foundation of faraway “ifs.” If LK-99 were a superconductor, if it could withstand high currents, if it weren’t too brittle to form into wire, if it were easy and cheap to synthesize, if the materials for its manufacture could be readily acquired, and if policy and funding followed suit, then maybe it could provide a small boost for energy efficiency a decade or more down the line. In short, it would be far from the quick climate fix that the U.S. seems particularly hungry for.

Superconductivity alone isn’t enough. For a material to be useful in power generation and electronics, it would need to have many other exceptional qualities. Some superconductors lose their capacity to freely transport electricity at high currents or in the presence of magnetic fields, yet both abilities are necessary for an electrical component to be practical. Ductility and flexibility are also crucial, points out Michael Norman, director of the Quantum Institute at Argonne National Laboratory: if you can’t easily stretch LK-99 into a wire, then using it in turbines, transmission lines or fusion reactors becomes much more challenging. Processing a material into thin films could offer a wireless workaround, Norman notes, but then the problem becomes one of difficulty and cost—which has disqualified past proved superconducting products, such as cuprate tape, from being widely manufactured.

Beyond those questions of material properties, even the most ideal “all-weather” superconductor still wouldn’t solve climate change, Mason adds. That’s partially because it would bring only marginal improvements to the transmission lines of most state-of-the-art power grids, which are already quite efficient. “They only lose about 5 percent of their energy as heat,” Mason notes, and we’re not going to “solve climate change at the 5 percent scale.”

Pablo Duenas Martinez, an engineer studying energy decarbonization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees. In his field, Duenas Martinez says, no one is really talking about superconductors. “We are more worried about, for example, materials for batteries,” he explains. For power grids, transmission losses are trivial compared to the harder problem of having sufficient energy storage to fully benefit from solar and wind power, which can only intermittently provide electricity. And beyond the need for better batteries, there are even harder problems still, such as the societal challenge of changing attitudes and behaviors that have held the world in thrall to fossil fuels for so long.

Boosting transmission efficiency, Duenas Martinez notes, doesn’t require wondrous superconductors at all and can instead be achieved with existing technology by simply updating old infrastructure. It’s a lack of investment, not a lack of possibility, that’s kept the grid as-is. Then, he adds, there are policy decisions, such as continuing to provide subsidies for fossil fuels, that maintain oil, gas and coal as artificially inexpensive options despite the fact that wind and solar power have rapidly become comparatively cheaper. Climate change is a problem that requires immediate and sustained action—on multiple fronts—if we’re to avoid ever worsening consequences. Our governments and global economies are so enmeshed with fossil fuels that the emissions crisis can’t be fixed by scientific or technological advances alone.

All that doesn’t mean the possibility of a practical room-temperature superconductor is worthless—such a thing would be an enormous boon for technological development and scientific research, perhaps in ways we can’t yet fully comprehend. But in retrospect, the enthusiasm surrounding LK-99 may well say more about our collective desire for easy answers and propensity for wishful thinking than it ever did about the potential of the material itself.

“We cannot wait for a disruptive technology to happen to start decarbonizing,” Duenas Martinez says. The wind turbines we have now aren’t perfect, but we need more of them. Power grids must be expanded and upgraded, even if doing so relies on transmission lines made from ordinary copper. Weaning ourselves from fossil fuels requires somehow moderating our enormous energy demands and rethinking economic myths of infinite growth. There is no silver (or LK-99) bullet that can snap the planet’s perilously warming climate back to some preindustrial idyll, Duenas Martinez emphasizes. At first, a floating rock might look like magic, but it isn’t—it never is.

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