The Curious Case of LK-99
An approachable post-mortem on the world's most recent "hype wave".
There's something interesting in looking into hypes.
We already know the way they feel, these hype waves: they feel like the levitating, superspeed maglev train rides that an ambient-temperature superconductor would bring about: fleeting and euphoric. But besides knowing how hypes feel, we know how they end: they peter out of existence, like that penny you're given in return for that 0.99$ ticket. Like those returned pennies, so fast do hypes disappear from our minds that it's almost as if they had never been there.
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I’ve been covering the LK-99 saga for Tom’s Hardware, so I’ve been right in the middle of this particular hype-wave (here are the stories I wrote on the subject). This article attempts to summarize my investigations around LK-99, pointing out what I feel currently are the major questions and trains of thought around it, while providing commentary.
The table of contents is this:
1 - The Gist on LK-99
2 - A Poisoned Apple?
3 - LK-99 Goes to the Patent Office
4 - Science is Forever Incomplete
5 - Outro
The Gist on LK-99
LK-99 is a gray–black compound, synthesized by doping lead‒apatite with copper. According to the authors of the original paper, it presented all the hallmarks of being a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor.
That’s relevant because superconductors are “magical”: they can conduct electricity with zero resistance, and can be used to create permanent magnets due to their intrinsic ability to reject external magnetic fields. You could create a superconductor in the form of a circle, blast it with an electrical current (which is merely the ordered movement of electrons), and off those electrons go: running laps around the circle - at the speed of light, no less - without slowing down, becoming lost, or losing energy to the environment.
The problem is that current superconductors require sub-zero temperatures or/and pressures many times greater than the Earth’s atmosphere before they actually superconduct. As you can imagine, that severely limits where they can be used.
The hype around LK-99 and other superconductors revolves around the idea that a material capable of transferring electricity with zero resistivity could revolutionize countless fields of engineering. Perhaps it’s easier to visualize: so imagine cellphones and computers whose chips don’t overheat (and so, can be pushed much harder); electric grids that don’t lose electricity across distance; eternal magnets (and hence, eternal levitation); etc. Here’s a great article from The Conversation covering what it means in more depth.
There's currently no saying where the hype wave is with LK-99; if at its crest or broken against the sand. But it seems like it mostly abated as soon as the first failures to reproduce the compound were published. But irrespective of where hype is, there are still many questions claiming for answers (and vice-versa). Researchers, at least, are still trying to figure it out whether or not LK-99 could, maybe, prove to be a superconductor.
To be clear, the jury is still out. But perhaps that’s understandable. Here’s the published formula for LK-99:
Yes, you’re correct. The chemical formula for LK-99 features an unknown variable (X). That X represents the uncertainty in the number of copper atoms that replace the lead atoms within LK-99 (the reason attributed to the found superconductivity in the original paper). To be clear, that’s not uncommon - other formulas for other compounds similarly include variables. Chemistry, after all, is a quantum process - and scientists can’t easily control those yet. It’s also the most likely culprit for failing replication attempts - assuming the original paper isn’t a hoax.
For now, a fault-line in the published replications of LK-99 seems to cleanly divide the experimentalists (who have attempted to synthesize LK-99 and physically verify its properties) and the software simulation wizards, aka, theorists (they're all still quantum scientists, just to be clear).
But while the experimental side has been offering itself to dead ends emotionally reminiscent of the cold fusion debacle, the computer models seem to say there's actually something here: there are scenarios where this could become a superconductor, at least. None of them prove so conclusively - they're just simulations, after all. And these simulations too have to make assumptions based on the available LK-99 data.
They may be right; but they may also not actually apply.
A Poisoned Apple?
The issue with LK-99 only partly boils down to the poor recipe left behind by the original Korean team that reported its discovery. It's easy to see the results of that on Wikipedia's live-tracker for LK-99 replication attempts. None of them are green, which is what we'd expect out of any recipe deserving of Nobel-winning research (which a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor qualifies for). Even if published in pre-print form.
What's dumbfounding is that the team with the Quantum Energy Research Centre (QERC) (a Seoul-based, privately-held corporation of which Lee Suk-bae, the lead author of the Korean paper, is the CEO) must've been proud of their work. They were so proud, in fact, that the original LK-99 research team was supplanted by one of their own - a "rogue" scientist who seemingly rushed publication. Young-Wan Kwon originally pushed the paper, crediting only Lee Suk-bae, Johoon Kim, and himself (as third author, interestingly). However, the second upload to Arxiv counts six authors. Of the original paper, only Sukbae Lee and Johoon Kim remain - the third author, Kwon, is no longer represented. That sounds like the harshest repair possible for any scientist - to have your name expunged from what is supposed to be a pivotal inflection point for humanity.
Their pride was such that they patented LK-99, ostensibly to explore its applications under the QERC. Specifically, all three of the original authors filed the compound for patenting back on August 25th, 2022. After claiming priority on their filing, Sukbae Lee, Johoon Kim, and Young-Wan Kwon (again as third author) finally saw their patent published. The day was March 2nd, 2023. Its first sentence read "A room-temperature and atmospheric-pressure superconducting ceramic compound and a preparation method therefor are disclosed".
There is a line where this might all have been a mere hoax from the very, very start; a play at monetary gain of some sort. If that's true, whoever had something to gain from this had to be lightning fast: the original three-author article was published on July 22nd, but caught the attention of the internet around July 27th, and seems to have gone viral by August 1st.
By August 3rd, Korean media broke the original disproval of the Arxiv LK-99 paper by the Korean Society of Superconductivity and Cryogenics (KSSC). But there was also mention that the Quantum Energy Research Centre was found to have falsely listed local companies and research institutes as partners on its website - and that it was now shut down. All of that within a day.
Yet just a day later, on August 4th, Gulf News reported it managed to get a hold of Kim Hyun Tak, one of the authors of the original Korean LK-99 papers (the second one). In that conversation, Kim said the team was working around the clock, and that they couldn’t provide any samples because they had such low volumes of LK-99. Kim concluded by saying the team was being distracted of its work by journalists.
And to be fair, who wouldn’t be?
LK-99 goes to the Patent Office
Of course, there's still the question of the patent. Perhaps Lee Suk-bae et al merely chose insurance for their science, and they were vested in protecting their interests around such a discovery. Patents aren't malfeasance in and of themselves, and “interns” have been known to list false partners on their websites since at least the dot-com boom.
You'd be forgiven for expecting a patent to be able to shed some light on the matter of LK-99; and well, it does. But at the same time, there are sections where the best the patent can do to describe what it's actually patenting is this:
According to another embodiment of the present invention, B may be substituted at the position of A in Formula 1.
According to another embodiment of the present invention, another location A may be changed by the B.
According to another embodiment of the present invention, the lattice structure of the ceramic compound may be modified by the substitution of B.
And yes, that opaqueness is by design. It seems unreasonable that you can say “all of these characteristics can be manifested across different versions of the item this patent is about”; which, of course, means that you have no idea what “embodiment” actually has all the characteristics, what that looks like from a systematic and fabrication viewpoint, or which of those (if any) are mutually exclusive.
It’s almost as if the original team didn’t want its results to be reproduced.
There are scenarios where fabricating a superconductive version of LK-99 is too prohibitive. Scenarios where we've actually bitten the poisoned apple: where the amount of time and effort dedicated to finding an answer within the boundaries of LK-99 limits our vision to answers that lay beyond them. Perhaps other superconductive concoctions whose discovery might be accelerated with increased funding? After all, opportunity cost is a well-known limitation of scientific research. And hype waves have this way of disproportionally (and most times, undeservedly) focusing attention on one thing to the detriment of all others.
If only the original paper wasn’t titled “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor” and didn’t end with “We believe that our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind.”
This section is pure speculation, and not based in fact:
I wonder why he jumped the gun - and why he was singled-out on the “official” paper. Because he was singled-out, we know the other members disapproved of his actions; and because he was removed, his offense must’ve been incredibly large. It’s also interesting that Kwon was involved in the patent process (meaning that he’s likely one of the team’s foremost experts). He also must’ve known the hype wave his title and conclusion would bring about.
Science is Forever Incomplete
Even if it's proven that LK-99 is a room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor, it might just remain too hard to reliably produce at any significant scale, for too long. Remember there are many scales here: from microelectronics through MRI magnets to Maglev trains (and we're not even entering the sci-fi realms or the Black Mirror version of its applications).
There's also the possibility that yes, LK-99 is the material to change the world, but we just can't accurately reproduce it (for now, and for an unforeseeable amount of time). It's one thing to deal with known unknowns. But even if the particular "alchemical" configuration in which LK-99 is the alfa and the omega of room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductors exists, there's a chance it'll still remain outside our capability to reliably reproduce (due to limitations on our current knowledge of quantum physics and materials engineering prowess).
All of the above scenarios mean that the computer simulations will never stop being that, and the world will never be changed - by LK-99, that is.
Except here's also the fact that Science knows failures way better than anything else; it thrives on the stuff. Different fields of Science are subject to daily verification, with the new knowledge of today solving the insurmountable problems (and sometimes usurping the answers) that came before. And condensed-matter physics is far from being an (ultimately lifeless) closed system. Just this week, another breakthrough in the field was announced - the discovery of a "demon particle", predicted in 1956 by theoretical physicist David Pines. If there’s a subject we still learn something about almost everyday, that’s quantum physics.
Perhaps it's true that we're feeling a collective desperation for scientific discovery. As human beings, it can sometimes be hard to come down from the heights of our ingenuity (of which everyone was reminded not that long ago by the advent of ChatGPT). But if there's something the discourse around AI and its impacts and biases is still teaching us, it's that perhaps it makes sense to track technologies from their design phase - not their deployment.
Let me very briefly touch upon the subject of hype. On one hand, it’s clear that different people require different stimuli to engage with any given topic. On the other hand, it’s also clear that for anything to be judged, its benefits have to be weighed against its negatives.
But when you consider that hype is often conflated with something going viral, you also see that hype means more people are engaging with a given subject.
My argument is simply this: considering how rarely scientific discourse or content goes mainstream, Science needs hype more than hype needs Science.
Of course, an excellent argument could be made that we would be better-off without hype. And it’s very likely we would; but we aren’t and likely won’t ever be. To demand that hype waves subside across the world is… a dream. It’s possible, but unlikely; and its possibility lies in the average person having enough information that their knowledge of the world maps onto reality so well that they understand what hype is (from a sociological perspective). When everyone can recognize the wrong side of hype - that of exaggeration - only then will we be able to choose to be free of it - individually.
Science deals in the fundamentals of our universe; it toys with concepts of infinities (either small or large), condensed-matter physics, and the universe being a simulation. It also tells us we’re a cloud of disparate particles, among other things that simply collide against our lived experience.
It’s understandable that it’s difficult to get there for most; and it’s understandable that people suspect what they don’t understand. But this “fault”, this “misunderstanding”, goes both ways. Because for communication to happen, for information to transfer across a sender and a receiver, they have to not only speak in the same language: they have to be in the same room. Hype brings “the normies” into the scientific party.
Millions of people who knew nothing of superconductors now know they exist. And through that lens, LK-99 is already insulated from ever being a pure fiasco.
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