Superconductor breakthrough could represent ‘biggest physics discovery of a lifetime’ – but scientists urge caution

Breakthrough would mark ‘holy grails of modern physics, unlocking major new developments in energy, transportation, healthcare, and communications’ – but it is a long way from being proven

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 27 July 2023 06:10 BST

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Scientists have claimed to make a breakthrough that would be “one of the holy grails of modern physics” – but experts have urged caution about the results.

In recent days, many commentators have become excited by two papers that claim to document the production of a new superconductor that works at room temperature and ambient pressure. Scientists in Korea said they had synthesised a new material called LK-99 that would represent one of the biggest physics breakthroughs of recent decades.

Superconductors are a special kind of material where electrical resistance vanishes, and which throw out magnetic fields. They are widely useful, including in the production of powerful magnets and in reducing the amount of energy lost as it moves through circuits.

They are also often impractical, since they require low temperatures and high pressure. That means that they cannot be used in most traditional circuits, for instance.

Since the beginning of the last century, scientists have been working not only to understand superconductivity but also develop new materials that would allow the phenomenon to be harvested at ambient temperatures and pressures. That has not been successful, and the discovery of such a material would mark a major breakthrough in physics.

The new papers, published in recent days as a preprint on the website arXiv, claims to have overcome that problem. The researchers said they had not only found a way to synthesise such a superconducting material, but also that it could be done relatively easily – leading to huge excitement on social media.

One Twitter thread from Alex Kaplan, a recent Princeton graduate who is now head of coffee product at startup Cometeer, helped propel the news into the mainstream. His thread had been viewed 8.5 million times, Twitter said, and has been retweeted more than 10,000 times.

“Today might have seen the biggest physics discovery of my lifetime. I don’t think people fully grasp the implications of an ambient temperature / pressure superconductor,” he wrote in a long thread that went on to explain the possible applications of the material.

Mr Kaplan pointed to the fact that vast amounts of energy are lost in the transmission of electricity across the world, that the the authors claimed material could be made in just 34 hours with simple equipment, and that such a superconductor would have revolutionary uses in everything from nuclear fusion reactors to batteries and quantum computers.

Scientists away from the work agreed that such a breakthrough would be hugely significant. But they urged caution, pointing to the fact that the paper has not yet gone through the peer review process, the results have not been replicated, and that there could be other explanations for the apparently astonishing behaviour described in the work.

“A real, working room-temperature superconductor which works at ambient pressure would be one of the holy grails of modern physics, unlocking major new developments in energy, transportation, healthcare, and communications,” said Mohammad Yazdani-Asrami of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering.

“As it stands, however, the paper is not yet peer-reviewed and has not yet been tested in other labs to see if other researchers can reproduce its results. These are both key to determining for sure whether the world should be getting excited about the authors’ claims, which need much more scrutiny at this early stage. If the claims of findings are approved, perhaps, this is one of the most significant achievements of last few decades in physics and material engineering.”

Others voiced specific concerns about the paper. Some of the results meant that other researchers working on superconductors were not convinced by the claims made in the paper.

“The recent preprint by Lee, Kim and Kwon suggesting that they have observed room temperature superconductivity in the copper doped lead phosphate system, without the need for very high applied pressures, is interesting, but not yet wholly convincing,” said Susannah Speller, Professor of Materials Science at the University of Oxford, and Chris Grovenor, Professor of Materials at the University of Oxford.

Professors Speller and Grovenor pointed to the fact that the data did not show the behaviour that would be expected to happen when the material became superconducting. Features that would be expected to be evident in the results were not, they said, and “and so it is too early to say that we have been presented with compelling evidence for superconductivity in these samples”.

John Durrell, professor of superconductor engineering at Cambridge University, said that it could take considerable time to see the practical benefits of the breakthrough, even if the team’s results were confirmed.

“There will be understandable scepticism about this result in the community as there have been numerous reports of room temperature superconductors over the years which have not held up,” he told The Independent. “I would, therefore, personally withhold judgement on this work until it becomes clear if the result is reproducible in other laboratories.

“From my engineering point of view, a practical room temperature superconductor would be potentially transformative – allowing a host of exciting applications such as cheap MRI machines, more compact and efficient motors and low loss power transmission.

“However, there can be significant challenges in turning a newly discovered superconducting material into a practical material. In previous cases, this has taken one or two decades and is not always possible.”

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