Chances are, it's nothing. But if it is something, it's a big something.
In late July, a group of researchers published two papers reporting an extraordinary discovery: a superconductor that works at normal temperatures and pressure. Dubbed LK-99, the material consists of the mineral apatite doped with copper atoms. Like conventional superconductors, the authors say, it can conduct electricity resistance-free — but, crucially, without the need for supercool or highly pressurised conditions.
Such a material, long theorised, has been dubbed the "holy grail" of the field.
In the days since, there's been a scramble to confirm the results. Two theoretical analyses concluded that the authors' claims were at least plausible. Dozens of other teams are trying to replicate the feat experimentally. Among practitioners of materials science and condensed-matter physics — at least those expressing themselves online — something close to giddiness has taken hold.
Caution is wise nonetheless. Neither paper has yet been peer-reviewed, while both seem to omit key facts. Some experts have called the experiment "sloppy." Many others have voiced scepticism. Notoriously, the field has long been plagued by hype and false hopes. (A study published in Nature in 2020, making claims of a similar breakthrough, was retracted last year.)
The implications of such an achievement — if replicated — would be profound. Almost overnight, the scientific landscape could change. The superpower of superconductors is that electricity moves through them without losing energy to resistance — provided they're cooled to (say) -320 F and subjected to colossal pressure. A room-temperature version could be deployed cheaply and widely, revolutionising fields from energy to transportation to computing.
Take the power grid. Using superconducting materials, energy loss from generating and transmitting electricity — currently an immense challenge — could be eliminated, thereby slashing costs and reducing emissions. Wind and solar power could be stored indefinitely.
Battery life could be extended for laptops, phones, electric cars. More tantalisingly, nuclear fusion — that long-elusive source of carbon-free baseload energy — could start to look commercially viable as room-temperature superconductors enabled smaller and less costly reactor designs.
There's more. Levitating trains, gliding above superconducting rails, could become commonplace. Medical-imaging devices could become smaller, cheaper and more precise. Practical quantum computers — with potential to accelerate everything from drug design to climate science — might become more feasible, thanks to improved accuracy and performance. In fact, almost any technology relying on electromagnetic processes could be transformed.
On the other hand, LK-99 may come to nothing. Sometimes things that seem too good to be true are just that. Such is the nature of scientific progress: trials and errors, triumphs and setbacks. It's a process that rewards risk, ambition and — every once in a while — off-the-wall optimism. In this case, it may well change the world as we know it.