In late July, Andrew McCalip started livestreaming on Twitch. He was mixing chemical powders and heating them up to over 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, grinding down the results and mixing them and heating them again. He was trying to replicate the recipe for making a substance called LK-99. Over 16,000 people were watching him, catapulting him into the top 5 streams on the popular site. This was quite an achievement for McCalip, who had fewer than 600 followers at the time.
“We started the livestream as a joke, really,” McCalip said. “What could be more boring than watching our furnace operate?” But McCalip wasn’t the only one suddenly obsessed with LK-99. Samples of the substance had been shown to be magnetically levitating in scientists’ videos. Materials scientists and hobbyists alike were rushing to recreate LK-99 in their labs. Tech luminaries like Spotify founder Daniel Ek and “SPAC King” Chamath Palihapitiya were publicly touting the latest developments on social media.
What had caught the attention of the internet public were the extraordinary claims surrounding LK-99. A preliminary paper from a group of researchers at Korea’s Quantum Energy Research Centre had described the substance as “the first room-temperature ambient-pressure superconductor.” If verified, this substance would have had the potential to revolutionize electronics components and make possible products that otherwise couldn’t be built.
However, early experiments have convinced most researchers in the field that LK-99 isn’t a superconductor. Despite this, the internet’s momentary obsession with the material highlights a real optimism towards the discovery of a technology that could move a wide swathe of industries forward.
To better understand the excitement surrounding LK-99, let’s take a step back and learn about conductors and superconductors. A conductor is a material that allows electrons to flow freely. Conductors are typically metals, such as copper, gold, and silver. However, no conductor is perfect. Electrons do not flow seamlessly through a conductor. They move more like a crowd of people all trying to get out of a stadium after a game. Even when there is plenty of room, they stop, start, bump into each other, and sometimes slow down. This is called resistance. In electric circuits, resistance generates heat. That’s why your computer has fans to cool it down.
Superconductors, on the other hand, enable a near-perfect flow of electrons without resistance. This means they do not generate heat. When superconductors are used to make electromagnets, they are both compact and powerful. Their invention in the 1970s made MRI imaging possible. However, there is a catch. Superconductors only exhibit zero resistance at extremely cold temperatures, which for most of them is near absolute zero. This makes them impractical for most situations. And to keep them running for applications like the MRI at your hospital, or quantum computers, they have to be cooled down with liquid helium, which is a bulky and expensive process. This is why the prospect of a room-temperature superconductor that operates at normal atmospheric pressures is so exciting. It could make electric power generation and distribution significantly more efficient.
Right now, the Department of Energy estimates that about 5% of electricity generated in the country is lost as it moves from power stations to customers, an amount worth about $65 billion. A room-temperature superconductor could help to reduce these losses, saving money and energy. In addition to this, room-temperature superconductors could also be used to make cheaper MRI machines, improve the accessibility of quantum computers, and reduce the costs of the magnets used to achieve nuclear fusion. They could also be used to build faster trains by using their magnetic levitation properties.
Of course, a room-temperature superconductor would not make all of these things happen overnight. There are still many challenges that need to be overcome before they can be widely used. But the potential benefits are enormous, and the excitement surrounding LK-99 is a testament to that. As Casey Handmer, a physicist who founded green energy startup Terraform, said: “One of the major costs of copper-based electronics is not the cost of the power lost through resistance, but the cost of removing the resulting heat.” Josh Wolfe, founder of venture capitalist firm Lux, shared similar sentiments, adding that he thinks “the bigger prospect is once a new capability exists and people can tinker with it, what creative ideas engineers will conjure that haven’t even been imagined yet.”
The initial claims about LK-99 being a room-temperature superconductor caused a lot of excitement in the scientific community. However, subsequent experiments have failed to replicate the results, and most scientists now believe that LK-99 is not a superconductor. There are a few reasons why LK-99 caused such a stir. First, it was relatively easy to replicate. The materials needed to make LK-99 are relatively common and inexpensive, which made it possible for many labs to try to reproduce the results. Second, the initial paper on LK-99 was well-written and presented a convincing case for the material’s superconductivity. The authors of the paper were careful to note that their findings were preliminary, but they did not explicitly state that LK-99 was not a superconductor. Third, the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor would be a major breakthrough, with the potential to revolutionize many industries. This made scientists and engineers around the world eager to confirm the findings of the initial paper.
While LK-99 is not a superconductor, the excitement surrounding its discovery has been beneficial to the scientific community. The attention that LK-99 received has helped to raise awareness of the field of superconductivity and has inspired many young people to pursue careers in science. In addition, the replication efforts that were conducted to verify the claims about LK-99 have improved our understanding of superconductivity. The scientists who worked on these experiments have learned a lot about the properties of materials that could potentially be used to create room-temperature superconductors. So, while LK-99 itself was a disappointment, the excitement that it caused has been a positive force in the world of science. It has helped to raise awareness of superconductivity, inspired young people to pursue careers in science, and improved our understanding of the materials that could be used to create room-temperature superconductors.
Here are some additional thoughts on the matter:
- It is important to be skeptical of new scientific claims, especially those that seem too good to be true.
- It is also important to be open-minded and willing to explore new ideas.
- The scientific process is all about testing and verifying claims. This is how we learn and make progress.
- The excitement surrounding LK-99 is a reminder of the power of science and the potential for new discoveries.
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The United Federation Starfleet Blog is written by Fleet Captain Hal Jordan and is published every Friday. Join in the discussion! Engage with us on Discord at: discord.io/ufstarfleet