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GUEST ESSAY

LK-99 — the most important scientific discovery in decades … or not

LK-99 — the most important scientific discovery in decades … or not
(Kiyoshi Takahase Segundo / Alamy)

If you haven’t heard of LK-99, then I assume you have taken a break from your screens over the past two weeks. The story, give or take its potential veracity, reads like a Netflix series, which it may well turn into one day.

I am always pleased when a story breaks in the global press that may be in the “too good to be true” category. If for no other reason than, while I wait for the other shoe to drop, it’s pleasing to feel hopeful and optimistic, albeit with a smattering of blind faith. The news to which I refer may indeed turn out to be true and, if it is, it will be, to put it mildly, one of the great scientific discoveries of the last century, promising many imminent and astonishing things for mankind.  

It is, of course, LK-99. Or, to be specific, a cheap and easily reproducible material that can conduct electricity with near zero resistance at room temperature and ambient pressure. Superconductivity. If you haven’t heard of LK-99, then I assume you have taken a break from your screens over the last two weeks.  

The story, give or take its potential veracity, reads like a Netflix series, which it may well turn into one day.  

So, let’s rewind.  

The search for superconductivity has been a long game. It started in 1911 when Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that mercury became a superconductor at a temperature of 4.2 Kelvin (-269.15 degrees Celsius). People have been getting excited about it ever since because, if they could do it cheaply and at room temperature and without undue pressure, then the rest of us could all go skipping into the sunset.  

How so? Well, electricity, for starters. If you need almost no power to push electrons around, the cost of electricity would plummet to a fraction of its current levels. And we would see much more sensitive medical equipment. And quantum computers. And cheap magnetically levitating trains. And, more generally, a massive efficiency improvement for anything that uses electricity or magnets. Which is just about everything.  

This search has consumed many scientists over the last 100 years or so. Japan was in the lead for a while, actually manufacturing its first high-speed maglev trains in 1993. The problem was simple — how to make or bake a conducting material that did not need to be cooled to the very low temperatures or the very high pressures that had previously made superconducting impractical and too costly for wide-scale use. I am told that materials science is a beast, resistant to easy manipulation and sometimes maddeningly fussy, requiring chimeric ingredients and luck. Up until recently no one had cracked it.  

Of course, this did not stop scientists from trying. Because great glory and wealth would await them. Not to mention Nobel prizes. And here is where the story gets to be fun.  

In 1999, a small group of Korean scientists working at the University of Korea under the leadership of a leading chemistry professor, Choi Dong-jik, noticed a chemical anomaly in a material which might indicate the possibility of making the elusive ambient superconductor. But this excitement is short-lived. They don’t reach the Holy Grail, and the researchers move on to other lives, some in academia, some in industry. The core team is Lee Seok-bae and Kim Jihun. That’s the “LK” in LK-99.   

And then, in 2017, Choi falls ill and, as his dying wish, asks his former mentees to complete the research properly. And, as in any such moment of high drama, who would deny a dying man his last wish? It turns out that the original 1999 researchers had been thinking about and tinkering with this problem on their own time for decades, but they now redouble their efforts to please their dying teacher. They are joined by a third researcher, the highly-regarded (and tenured) Professor Young-wan Kwon, without whom they would not have been able to attract funding to procure the kit to do the experiments. 

This leads to a few years of productive research along with some reported personality clashes, followed by a somewhat confusing set of events, when the first formal paper written by the team gets turned down by Nature in March 2020. Then this year another two papers are published in Arvix, a scientific pre-print server that publishes prior to peer review. These papers are not submitted by our plucky trio, but individually, no explanation given. Perhaps there was a falling out, perhaps someone went rogue. It’s all rumour at this point. Good for a plot in a piece of fiction. Backstabbing and double-dealing, perhaps.  

In any event, the one paper by Lee, published on 22 July, quickly goes viral. There is a video to spice it up, showing a small piece of material apparently levitating.  

Then things get a little more sparky. A bunch of scientists shout foul, saying that careful scientific method has been skirted and the results are likely to be nonsense. Another bunch of labs immediately get into the race, trying to replicate the results (with only inconclusive results at the time of writing).

A Russian scientist snarks that the Koreans had outlined their methodology but failed to say why it worked, so she redoes the experiment with a bunch of materials lying around her garage, claiming to have worked out the “why” as well as the “how”. Another scientist writes a sarcastic manifesto modelled on the famous “AI Pause” document signed by Musk and Harari and Altman, claiming that superconductor research should be halted until the ethical implications and the danger it poses to humanity’s existence are sorted out.  

The sceptical among us may remember the great cold fusion embarrassment of 1989 when Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, two highly regarded physicists at the University of Utah, announced that they had achieved fusion in a lab using only cheap tabletop equipment. They were wrong. It was a measurement error. Their careers were ruined and cold fusion funding came to a crashing and permanent halt.    

I’m not saying that the superconductor story will turn out to have the same ending, although a paper dropped on 8 August filled with inscrutable equations and authored by 16 scientists that basically said poppycock and balderdash to the Korean hopefuls. It is not clear whether this is the final word.  

But right now it’s still a bit of a circus show, and the final act is still being written. And likely coming to a theatre near you. DM 

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book is It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership.

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