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Scientists are skeptical of mysterious supposedly superconductive material

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier this summer, social media exploded with news about a mysterious material known as LK-99.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What is the big deal about the possible superconductor LK-99?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: LK-99 superconductor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: LK-99. And you won't believe what this...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Magnetically levitating trains. There's all kinds...

CHANG: Online, it looked like LK-99 might be about to change everything. But in laboratories all over the world, scientists were feeling confused. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on what happened next.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In late July, three Korean scientists posted a paper on a physics website. It claimed that a new material, LK-99, could conduct electricity with no resistance at room temperature. Within days on social media, Silicon Valley executives were posting about it. Reddit blew up. It was everywhere.

JOHNPIERRE PAGLIONE: It just happened so fast, you know? I mean, it's incredible.

BRUMFIEL: Johnpierre Paglione is director of the Quantum Materials Center at the University of Maryland. He's exactly the kind of researcher who should know all about LK-99. But he'd never heard of it or seen a sample.

PAGLIONE: I almost felt sort of pressure to try to produce something as quick as possible.

BRUMFIEL: So he put his team to work following a formula from the South Korean paper. As fast as they could, they made a few small chunks of LK-99. He shows me some. They look like gray grains of rice on a little circuit board.

PAGLIONE: So that's the purported LK-99 material. You see there's two pieces here.

BRUMFIEL: Oh, interesting.

PAGLIONE: So we have wires attached.

BRUMFIEL: We'll come back to this real-life sample in a minute. But first, let's talk about why everyone online got so excited. Richard Greene is a physicist at Maryland who works with Paglione.

RICHARD GREENE: I only come in for the good experiments.

BRUMFIEL: Greene is 85 years old and has spent much of his career studying something called superconductivity. Now, you've heard of regular conductivity. That's the process by which electricity flows through metal wires. Superconductivity is when that electricity flows with no resistance. It gets from point A to point B quickly and effortlessly.

GREENE: In principle, if you had a superconducting wire, you could run it from the West Coast to the East Coast and generate some electricity over there with a generator and put it right on the East coast with no loss of energy.

BRUMFIEL: This would be huge. For example, solar panels on one side of the Earth could power the other side at nighttime. Of course, there'd be lots of other uses, too. Some have even suggested levitating trains because superconductors have the ability to float above magnets. Scientists have known about superconductors for more than a century. The problem is that to work, most superconductors have to be super cold. But this LK-99 - according to the paper, it could superconductor at room temperature. And as evidence, the authors posted a brief video which seemed to show LK-99 floating above a magnet, just like a superconductor. Greene says he thinks that short video is what made LK-99 take off online.

GREENE: The fact that it's floating is what generates a lot of interest. Nobody cares about a resistance versus temperature curve (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: But a video of some floating stuff wasn't going to cut it for Greene and Paglione. So they asked postdoc Keenan Avers to make LK-99 in their lab. And here, I want to take a minute to make a public service announcement. There have been some videos online of people making LK-99 at home. Do not do that. Avers says it contains molten lead, which is both toxic and dangerous.

KEENAN AVERS: It will eat through quartz, just eats right through it. It will diffuse through ceramic aluminum oxide crucibles. It will get drunk in a dive bar and punch your friend in the face.

BRUMFIEL: But he's a professional. He made some, the samples I mentioned earlier. And the team tried to test them. They hooked them up to some electrical connections. And...

AVERS: We tried to get electric current through it. We just couldn't.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. This supposed superconductor couldn't even light a light bulb.

AVERS: This isn't even a bad conductor. It's just an insulator.

AVERS: In other words, this sample of LK-99 is the farthest thing from a superconductor imaginable. Leslie Schoop is a chemist at Princeton University who's also made LK-99 and found it does not superconduct. She spent a lot of the past few weeks on social media trying to calm everybody down. It's been an emotional roller coaster.

LESLIE SCHOOP: There were moments I was annoyed. And then there were other moments where I thought, this is funny.

BRUMFIEL: It's been frustrating at times.

SCHOOP: But on the other hand, lots of people got excited about physics and got excited about things which are very, very out there, right? So for me, that was also beautiful to see.

BRUMFIEL: These days, social media is filled with new posts and videos declaring LK-99 a flop. Again, Johnpierre Paglione.

PAGLIONE: Oh, it's dead. It's decided.

BRUMFIEL: But he says he's just as frustrated by the pooh-poohing as he was by the hype.

PAGLIONE: This is not how science works. We make judgments, but, of course, it takes a long time. It doesn't take a week.

BRUMFIEL: He's still studying LK-99. There could turn out to be something special about it. It's just probably not going to give humanity a hovering train. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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