For a sweet brief time, the Internet—including this blog—was abuzz with the possible advent of ambient pressure room temperature superconductivity. Alas however, LK-99 wasn’t the wonder-material we hoped for; the stuff that could have “changed everything“.
Instead, the results of the Korean team seemed to have been the outcome of a perfect storm of false positives. What looked and smelled like the real deal, were likely caused by chemical impurities in the carefully designed alloy, dubbed LK-99, of copper, lead, phosphorus and oxygen.
Big disappointment. I must remember to remember that when something looks too good to be true, it usually is. I’ll make a mental note.
Still and all, though…
The whole debacle was kind of inspiring, in at least two ways…
First of all it proves what an awesomely well-oiled machinery science has become. I mean it took *three decades* and billions of dollars to debunk the idea of cold fusion; the false positive of the century. Meanwhile, debunking LK-99 took *two weeks* and it literally played out in real-time, notably on Twitch where replication efforts were live-streamed and on Hacker News, where solid state physicists published their insights and arguments in comments which sometimes read like scientific articles, both in length and detail. It was exhilarating to watch the feed grow around the clock.
(Here’s an interesting side-note on the topic of cold fusion which I just learned: When Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons struck the scientific world with awe in 1989, they had unknowingly performed the same experiment that Swedish physicist John Tandberg already tried to patent in 1927. His claim was turned down then, since it was deemed that he didn’t really understand the process he had discovered.)
The second thing that turns the LK-99 fiasco into a productive failure, is how it turned out to be a conversation starter.
Here’s what I mean by that: everyone seemed to have taken for granted that room temperature ambient pressure superconductivity, if achieved, would be a game-changer of such epic proportions that it would pretty much single-handedly fix climate change. Now that we don’t need to hold our breath anymore, Scientific American takes a stern look at those wild claims in a recent article which concludes that:
“Even if LK-99 had proved to be a room-temperature superconductor, its feasibility for addressing energy and climate concerns would rest on an exceedingly flimsy foundation of faraway “ifs.” If LK-99 were a superconductor, if it could withstand high currents, if it weren’t too brittle to form into wire, if it were easy and cheap to synthesize, if the materials for its manufacture could be readily acquired, and if policy and funding followed suit, then maybe it could provide a small boost for energy efficiency a decade or more down the line. In short, it would be far from the quick climate fix that the U.S. seems particularly hungry for.”
Being guilty myself of having joined the enthusiastic band-wagon, I’m a little bit embarrassed when reading this. I really must remember to remember that there are no silver bullets. That even *if* the tech works, there’s always going to be so many more pieces to the puzzle.