The below piece ran in the Asia Focus section of WJI's October issue
The search for a room-temperature superconductive material has long been pursued, but so far it has remained a scientific theory. There is widespread interest in recent claims from South Korean researchers who believe that LK-99 could be for real. While further assessment of K-99 may well show that it is not “for real,” that possibility is hard to ignore.
Word that a new superconductor—LK-99—can work at room temperatures or higher, and at ambient pressure, recently fueled an online frenzy that led to much discussion as to whether it could for real. By press time, the story that broke in July and was abuzz in early August may not just be yesterday’s news, but yesterday’s news refuted, as there are many questions about the concept from Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim, and colleagues, of South Korea’s Quantum Energy Research Centre.
Per Wikipedia, LK-99 is a potential room-temperature superconductor with a gray-black appearance that is said to have a hexagonal structure that is slightly modified from lead‒apatite by adding small amounts of copper. In 1999, a Korea University team led by Lee and Kim claimed that the material acts as a superconductor at temperatures below 400 K (127°C/260°F) and at ambient pressure. Not much happened until recently, when a July 22 technical paper by Lee and Kim (their names led to the LK-99 tag) jolted the technical field as they implied that room-temperature capability may be possible.
On Aug. 4, 2023, a report sent to SBS News said that high-quality LK-99 samples may exhibit diamagnetism 5,450 times greater than graphite, while low-quality samples may demonstrate an effect up to 23 times stronger. The only way that could be, the report said, is if the substance is a superconductor.
A recent story in BusinessKorea said that the Korean Superconductivity Society recently established a committee of experts to verify LK-99, a room-temperature superconductor developed by Korean researchers affiliated with the Quantum Energy Research Center (QERC) among others. The society said it plans to provide samples produced by the QERC for testing.
While LK-99 would be a stunning advance if it was found to be scientifically verified, several wire and cable manufacturers have been working on them, albeit with technology that does not work at room temperatures.
In 2021, South Korea’s LS Cable & System developed a next-generation 23 kV triaxial superconducting cable and obtained an IEC on the product. Currently, only three companies in the world can make superconducting cables, and LS Cable & System notes that it is the only one that established an international standard for a triaxial superconducting cable.
WJI asked LS Cable & System whether it was involved in any way with the research into LK-99, and got the following reply. “The superconducting cable commercialized by LS Cable & System is a product with a different technology from LK-99, which has recently become an issue.”
That response did not state that South Korea’s LS Cable & System was not interested in the potential of LK-99, only that at this point it is not part of the current activity.
LK-99 technology is worth pursuing as multiple reports note that its hoped-for potential would be an amazing advance. It has been likened to the search for the Holy Grail, yet it also evokes decades-old memories of claims of “cold fusion” for nuclear energy that never materialized. And yes, there are skeptics for LK-99.
To date, there has been no scientific validation of LK-99, although there was one report of observed superconductivity at 110 K by a team from Southeast University, China. However, the absence of the Meissner effect (a defining characteristic of superconductors) was questioned as well as the testing method.
There has been considerable response, most doubting the accuracy of the claims. An article published by Time said that on July 31, researchers from the National Physical Laboratory of India uploaded a paper that found that LK-99 is not superconductive. Veerpal Singh Awana, chief scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, posted details online outlining his group’s unsuccessful efforts to replicate the findings. Also, researchers from Beihang University in Beijing uploaded a paper on July 31 that found that LK-99 is not superconductive.
Other warning flags were that there was no heat anomaly test and no definition of “zero resistance.”
An editorial in The Hindu was blunt. “For another claim this year, of a material that reportedly superconducts near room temperature and under much less pressure than others of its kind, its originators shared instructions to synthesize it but refused to share samples, claiming they constituted intellectual property. While this may be, their refusal vitiated the proper process of science in the face of such an extraordinary claim.”
Another on-line article, in the Korean Joongang Daily, said that a researcher from the Korea Institute of Energy Technology (Kentech) “confirmed that the crystal structure of LK-99 is in line with what has been suggested in manuscripts put forward by the Korean scientists, according to local media reports.” At the same time, it noted that The Korean Society of Superconductivity and Cryogenics looking into the claims believes that “based on the studies and footage, the material appearing in the research and the footage cannot be considered as a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor.”
But for now, LK-99 is front and center, and multiple Korean researchers are assessing the technology. If it is deemed feasible, more than one wire and cable manufacturer would be very, very interested.