Amid Reports of Superconductivity, Science Scrambles to Verify

Aug 9, 2023

Researchers in South Korea say they have found a new superconductor. The news has some scientists excited. Others are skeptical, though.

If true, the news could make a big impact on electricity as we know it. That’s because superconductors allow for near-perfect storage and transfer of energy. An iPhone with a superconductor battery wouldn't lose charge when you’re not using it. Laptops wouldn't overheat. On a much bigger scale, superconductors could reduce power grid leakage. Every time you flip a light switch, 5% of the energy is lost. That's because our power lines are made with materials that can't move energy as well as a superconductor. If we stop those leaks, we could save billions of dollars a year.

The South Korean invention is a mix of lead and other materials. They call it LK-99. It isn’t the world’s first superconductor, though. Helium and mercury can do it, too. But they need to be kept very cold to work. Mercury must be at -452.5 degrees Fahrenheit. LK-99 works at room temperature, or so the researchers claim.

Simon Clarke is a professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford. He told TIME that reports like the one from South Korea aren't new. There have been claims just like it since the 1990s. None of those have proven true. Clarke believes the Korean research used impure materials that couldn’t have actually superconducted.

Other scientists are rushing to replicate the results of the study but have yet to be successful, a sign that LK-99 might be more hype than hope. Still, many point out that any advance in the field, even a faulty one, gets us one step closer to a breakthrough.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Mai-Linh Doan.

Reflect: Imagine a world where things can move and work without using up energy or getting too hot. How do you think this could make our lives different? What are some things you would want to improve with this kind of technology?

Which of the following is not mentioned in the story as a potential use for room temperature superconductors? (Common Core RI.5.1; RI.6.1)
a. preventing power grid leakage
b. enhancing the battery life of electronic devices
c. revolutionizing home heating systems
d. preventing overheating in electronic devices
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