As a matter of policy, this is not a blog that covers breaking news very often, and we certainly do not talk about science fiction here. Our readership is the network of senior business leaders who engage with Executive Platforms across a number of different industries and job functions, and we do our best to talk about content that would be interesting and relevant to them.
Sometimes that includes talking about a trend we see coming that we want to get our readers familiar with before it’s everywhere.
There is a possibility that is about to happen to room-temperature superconductors, and if you are not quite sure what that is or why it’s a big deal, keep reading. This has the potential to be as big as the steam engine or the transistor or the internet in terms of a turning point in how the world works.
I already said this blog does not talk about science fiction, so I will preface all that is to come with the disclaimer that while something exciting has happened in the world of material sciences, we are still in the early days of third-party verification. This breakthrough has been claimed before, although none of those earlier instances held up to any outside scrutiny. A lot of experts are looking at this right now and are trying to duplicate the original discovery independently as I write this. If they succeed, it will be the equivalent of other aviation pioneers duplicating the Wright Brothers’ first flights. Think how fast the world changed once airplanes became real. Let’s get familiar with what’s going on before someone expects you to already know all about it.
What is a Superconductor, and Why is a Room Temperature One Important?
Let’s start with the basics. A superconductor is a material where electrical resistance disappears and a magnetic field is created. More simply, when you put electricity into a superconductor, you do not lose any energy —a multimeter would register zero volts and zero ohms on a live circuit— and it becomes a magnet.
We have known about superconductors since 1911, when a Dutch physicist named Heike Kamerlingh Onnes observed that when he emersed mercury wire in liquid helium, bringing its temperature down to within just a few degrees of Absolute Zero (-273.15°C or 4.2 Kelvin, to be precise) its electrical properties abruptly changed. He wrote, “”Mercury has passed into a new state, which on account of its extraordinary electrical properties may be called the superconductive state.” Over the next two years he discovered similar properties in tin, lead, then other metals and alloys including niobium-tin, all when cooled down to almost Absolute Zero. In 1913 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work.
This will not be the only Nobel Prize related to superconductors you will hear about.
When experimental physicists prove that something happens, theoretical physicists have to figure out the why of it. A lot of hypotheses were kicked around about superconductivity, as well as suggestions for practical applications. By the 1950s, the US physicists John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer had an explanation for low-temperature superconductivity that everyone seems to agree on. Electrons moving through a superconductor can pair up using quantum properties to evade the normal barriers to free movement through a solid. They proved mathematically that this pairing was possible in many substances up to a temperature of around 40 Kelvin, but higher than that the pairs of electrons would be shaken apart by the energy of the warm solid matter. Their work earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972.
Further discoveries in the 1980s and early 1990s discovered exceptions to the 40 Kelvin limit. In a way that physicists have not quite agreed on yet, some superconductors work at temperatures of up to 133 Kelvin (-140°C), which is well within the capabilities of relatively inexpensive liquid nitrogen to bring matter down to that temperature.
If all of this has sounded a little dry so far, here’s where it should get exciting. Once you don’t need expensive and difficult-to-handle liquid helium to get solids into the superconductive state, you can start doing real things with them. MRI machines in hospitals are superconductors. The magnets that steer particles in the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle physics laboratory are superconductors. The magnetic bottles in experimental fusion reactors are created with superconductors. There are supercomputers and experimental quantum computers using superconductors as vital components. Advanced electronics in things like wind turbines and cellphone towers can also include superconductors.
With all that said, we are still limited by requiring a liquid nitrogen cooling system for these applications. If we could get a superconductor to work at room temperature —something theoretical physics has not described, but we already have experimental physics demonstrating we do not understand the limits of high-temperature superconductivity yet— then we could do all kinds of incredible things with computers and electronics and power generation and transmission and even transportation. Imagine a world where electricity is basically free, computer processor designers have whole new frontiers to explore, and maglev trains easily outcompete all other forms of freight and passenger travel. That’s a world of room-temperature superconductors.
There have been a few more discoveries where room temperature semiconductors have been created at enormous pressures, but for the sake of getting on with our story, let’s acknowledge if liquid nitrogen-cooling is a practical limitation to the advancement of superconductor technology, creating conditions similar to that within the Earth’s core is not a better substitute.
Anyway, let’s talk about what’s in the news at the moment.
Why Are We Talking About This Right Now?
While there is a bit of a scramble at the moment over who should get the credit, it seems a team of scientists at the Quantum Energy Research Centre in South Korea and an American-based research professor of physics named Hyun-Tak Kim have been tinkering around with a novel approach to material science experimentation since 1999. They now claim to have made a breakthrough, and Dr. Kim says he will support anyone trying to replicate his team’s work.
LK-99 (from Lee-Kim 1999) is made when lead oxide and lead sulphate in a one-to-one ratio are heated up to 1000 Kelvin for 24 hours, and copper and phosphorus at a three-to-one ratio are placed in a vacuum-sealed tube and heated up to 820 Kelvin for 48 hours. The crystals produced from these two processes (called lanarkite and copper phosphide) are then ground into powder, mixed, put into another vacuum-sealed tube, and heated up to 1200 Kelvin for between five and 20 hours. (The exact timeframe for that step seems to still be a matter of ongoing experimentation.) The resulting dark grey solid resists electricity when heated, but appears to enter a superconductive state at 30°C (303.15 Kelvin, or 86°F for American readers).
Put more simply, this is a superconductive substance without coolant or pressure requirements. You could hold it in the palm of your hand, and it would work.
Here is a video of the resulting substance with one end appearing to levitate above a magnet, demonstrating it is creating a magnetic field after electricity has been added to it. They attribute the non-levitating end to an impurity in the sample, and they have been transparent that they are still working to perfect their manufacturing process.
Now an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and scientists are reacting to this video and two upcoming but not yet peer-reviewed scientific papers along with one previously published study in the obscure Journal of the Korean Crystal Growth and Crystal Technology with understandable caution and skepticism. There are real signs that some members of the team may have rushed to publish without the consensus of the others —it is probably worth adding at this point that the Nobel Prize for Physics that will surely be awarded to whoever comes up with room-temperature superconductors can only be shared by a maximum of three scientists. Have they come forward with their work too soon? Is LK-99 really a superconductor, or have they somehow mistaken it as one in their rush to be first? There are dangers to experimental physics claiming to make discoveries of things that do not yet have theoretical physics underpinning our understanding of what is happening. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes did not have an explanation for why his experiments worked. Only that they worked. It was decades before a working theory explained what he had found. Have these scientists really stumbled onto a discovery of similar magnitude, or does it just look like it at first glance?
If this really is a room-temperature superconductor that just about any chemist can make, we will soon see third-party verification, and the current confusion over authorship and validity will become part of the legend told at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm when the Nobel Prize is handed out.
What Might Happen Next?
If this is real —and, again, we should know fairly soon if it is— an inexpensive room-temperature superconductor that anyone can manufacture is about to be available for all sorts of real-world applications.
Let’s start with energy transmission. Right now, 10% of all electricity generated in the world is lost during transmission. Conductors like copper or aluminum wrapped around a steel core have limits imposed by physics. Some of the electrons will be absorbed by the conductor, converted into kinetic energy, and dissipated as heat. You’ve heard the hum of transmission lines and the click/pop of transformer stations? That’s energy being lost. More than 100,000,000,000 kWh are lost each year in the United States alone. Think of all the resources that went into creating that energy for it to just be lost as part of the cost of doing business! Supplement, enhance, and eventually replace our existing transmission infrastructure with LK99 —a substance whose base components and manufacturing process is actually less expensive than current conductors— would see lossless transmission. You could generate electricity on a solar panel out in, say, the Sahara Desert and deliver it to anywhere in the world without losing a single watt!
As if that was not enough to impress, one of the challenges holding back advances in fusion reactors and quantum computers is the necessity for and requirements of nitrogen and/or helium cooling of superconductors required for their operation. A room-temperature superconductor eliminates all sorts of complications hindering current designs. If we can get them to work, fusion generators would essentially be free electricity. If we can get them to work, quantum computers are going to make today’s computers look like abacuses. A room-temperature superconductor is an enormous step forward towards making a working magnetic bottle for the plasma at the heart of a fusion reactor, or bringing the size and complexity of a quantum computer down from something that fills a building to something that sits on your desktop.
Room-temperature superconductors will also be game-changers for batteries. Today the coolant required to keep matter in a superconductive state is more expensive and requires more energy to maintain than is practical at scale. With that concern removed, just put current into a room-temperature superconductor coil, and it will stay there forever until you want it out again. All renewable energy sources like wind and solar and tide where they only generate power some of the time just became infinitely more effective and reliable. There will also be greatly reduced demand for the elements that make up our current batteries, which is another enormous environmental win.
We should also point out that lossless transmission means all electronics and electric motors can now be redesigned without worrying about overheating. Things can get smaller, more efficient, and more powerful. I wrote a lengthy essay on semiconductors last year. All those concerns and limits I mentioned will be rendered moot. Room-temperature superconductors will change the way everything works and open up new frontiers for chip designers and processor architects to explore. Even without quantum computing, Moore’s Law may well live and thrive into the next century if room-temperature superconductors become available.
I mentioned Maglev trains earlier? Far from being expensive proof-of-concept technology showcases, magnetically levitating transportation will be cheaper and faster than trains, trucks, and cars, much cheaper and almost as fast as planes, and they will outcompete ships anywhere you can find a land route alternative —even if you have to add thousands of kilometers onto the journey to do so. We will never need to repave a road or repair a railway track again. Lay LK99 instead. Heck, use the transportation grid as the new energy grid while you are at it. Anywhere you want to go, you can float 10 centimeters off the ground on a magnetic field pushing back against the magnetic field on the LK99 track below. There will be no moving parts. What will that do to wear and tear and maintenance requirements? It will all run on electricity more efficiently than our imaginations can easily grasp today.
I have said several times this blog does not do science fiction. I appreciate these last few paragraphs read like science fiction. The point is, a tidal wave of positive change and disruption may well be on the way. Every business leader should be keeping their eyes and ears open for updates on room-temperature semiconductors. Every manufacturer should be prepared to start up their own ability to manufacture LK99, because demand will be pretty-near limitless. Every company’s Sustainability goals and ESG reporting should be ready for major positive revisions.
Everything may be about to change, and most of that change will be for the better. This is an exciting time, even if it only ends up being a partial breakthrough. For now, let’s just be alert, attentive, and informed.
I look forward to hopefully writing about this again in the future.
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.