DIY Scientists and Institutions Are Racing to Replicate the Room
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DIY Scientists and Institutions Are Racing to Replicate the Room

Jun 29, 2023

All across the world, top labs and citizen scientists alike are racing to replicate the results of a viral study that claimed to have invented a long-sought technology that could revolutionize our daily lives: a room-temperature superconductor.

Superconductors are special materials that allow electricity to pass through them with no resistance, a property that opened the door to countless technical advances from MRI machines, to particle accelerators, to electrical power grids. However, these materials typically have to be cooled to frigid temperatures or put under intense pressure to work their magic, a limitation that has constrained their practical development. For this reason, the invention of a superconductor that runs at room temperature and pressure is considered a holy grail in the physics community.

In a preprint posted online on July 22, which has not been peer reviewed, a team of Korean researchers claimed that they achieved this monumental breakthrough using LK-99, a material made of lead and apatite with a twist of copper. The paper gained massive attention online, with many jumping to the conclusion that humanity had reached a new watershed. As Motherboard reported last week, many experts in this field have expressed doubt and skepticism over the preliminary results and have urged caution until other teams independently confirm the discovery.

The relatively simple building blocks of LK-99—the paper reports that the authors used a mortar and pestle as part of the process—have spurred people to try to duplicate the results at home, even as researchers work to validate the findings at leading institutions such as the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in China or the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States.

The frenetic effort to replicate LK-99 is now playing out everywhere from advanced laboratories to the kitchen countertops of DIY enthusiasts, sparking exuberant reactions on Twitch, TikTok, Twitter, and Chinese social media sites such as Bilibili. The claims have been neither confirmed or refuted, and for now, we must simply ride out the great scientific spectacle of LK-99 as partial results emerge in the form of social media posts and videos.

“I think it's great that solid-state physics has captured the imagination of the public, and I think we can learn a lot as scientists in how to communicate these ideas to the public to interest them more in what is so interesting about it!” said Sinéad Griffin, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and an expert on superconductivity, told Motherboard in an email.

“That being said, I think it's important that the hype is appropriately managed and that exaggerations or hyperbole is avoided,” she added.

A list hosted by a YouTuber who goes by Eiri Sanada documents a number of known replication attempts. There are reportedly seven affiliated with institutional labs in the U.S., China, France, and India. Some of the efforts are noted as only being evidenced by WeChat logs circulating on social media, or Twitter comments.

Sanada said in an email that the table was not their idea. It originally came from a user named Guderian2nd on a sci-fi forum called Spacebattles. “Where I came in (and why people are focusing on my copy) is that Twitter inherently suffers from the same issue of becoming more difficult to follow over time—even more so than an internet forum. I have a fondness for writing game guides and user-friendly primers for tech, so I wrote a personal article and attached the table with my own set of user-friendly notes. The table occurred parallel to my article, and I suppose I became a link to Twitter users,” they said.

“In short, I expect things to become even more difficult [to keep track of],” they added, emphasizing that the list is not their sole research effort.

Science’s news team reported that researchers from Argonne are working on replicating the LK-99 experiment, but the lab hasn’t posted an official update. Argonne replied to Motherboard’s request for comment but did not provide a statement in time for publication; we will update this article when we hear back.

One replication effort, undertaken by researchers from the National Physical Laboratory of India, was documented on a personal Facebook page. A preprint better explaining the team’s latest conclusions was posted on Tuesday. Their results indicate that “the present LK-99 sample [...] as of now do not approve the appearance of bulk superconductivity at room temperature,” but that more tests are ongoing.

Sinéad Griffin from LNBL also presented theoretical work that suggested LK-99 has tantalizing features seen in other materials that display superconductivity at higher temperatures, which are known as high-TC superconductors, according to a preprint published on Monday. After seeing the study go viral on Twitter, she started running simulations of the LK-99’s properties, with a special focus on the inclusion of copper in LK-99.

“What was interesting to me is that the material system, apatite, isn't something you'd usually expect to possess the sort of physics that permits high-TC superconductivity,” Griffin told Motherboard in an email. “So that was what got me interested originally. I decided to start running calculations because there was a claim in the paper that I knew I could test immediately with the theoretical tools that I use”—especially how including copper set off a collapse of volume in the material.

“When I did the calculation and saw the same volume collapse I was super interested!” she continued. “I looked into it more and found there was actually a large rearrangement of the atoms that corresponded to that volume collapse—so a lot of the atoms in the unit cell move in response to the inclusion of copper. This was a little weird to me!”

Griffin emphasized that she did not find evidence for superconductivity in LK-99. Her study established that the material may have properties in common with other high-TC superconductors, though the simulations also hint that the position of copper (Cu) in LK-99 may play a complex and outsized role in its conductivity.

“I was just curious to see what would happen to the system if the Cu was included in the structure as they reported—and seeing the volume collapse and the structural rearrangement lined up well with what they had reported,” she explained. “However, I also found that if the Cu goes in a different place in the unit cell that you don't see the same sort of volume collapse or structural changes—so there is something special about the position of the Cu.”

“Moreover, I found that the Cu appears to prefer to sit in the 'uninteresting' site, suggesting that it might be more difficult to make with the interesting properties that hint towards superconductivity,” she added.

Beyond these early reports, a rush of experimental results is also likely forthcoming, which could help to confirm or deny that LK-99 is a room-temperature superconductor.

A video posted Tuesday on Chinese social media site Bilibili, which has been viewed over 4 million times and which Motherboard has not verified, purportedly depicts work by HUST researchers illustrating partial levitation of an LK-99 sample. The Korean researchers behind the original viral study also posted video of their sample partially levitating, which experts told Motherboard was not slam-dunk evidence of a Meissner effect in action.

Of the seven known official attempts to replicate the LK-99 study, all are listed either as failures, partial successes with more analysis on the way, or total question marks.

“My guess is that many university labs have already made these samples,” said Jennifer Fowlie, an associate scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, in an email to Motherboard. “They are not putting this on social media because this is largely at odds with the scientific process, which inherently requires more care, more cross-checking and thus takes more time. But we will hear from them before too long I'm sure. Even if an informal lab were to come out with results first, they have no credibility so it makes little difference.”

Sanada’s database also lists seven DIY attempts, which are being closely watched by social media users.

One effort is being led by Andrew McCalip, an engineer at the space research company Varda Space Industries. McCalip is documenting his efforts to replicate the results with Twitch livestreams and frequent updates on Twitter. Challenges have included obtaining the raw elements to synthesize LK-99, and even manufacturing basic equipment like quartz tubes. His most recent update contained images of what McCalip said were lanarkite, one of the main ingredients for LK-99. McCalip didn’t respond to a request for comment sent by Twitter DM.

A Twitter user who goes by Iris Alexandria and says they are a soil scientist in Russia chronicled an alternate method for synthesizing the material and testing its properties in a wide-ranging thread. Alexandria not only posted that they synthesized LK-99 successfully using a method that included a flower pot, but posted photos that showed the sample apparently levitating inside a glass tube.

When reached for comment, Alexandria emphasized that their work is not done yet. “It's a free time project and I am in [the] middle of a workweek,” they said. “Also nothing is published so far.” They didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up.

In the latest update from independent testers to excite social media users, a user on Chinese forum site Zhihu who said their “group” was experimenting with LK-99 posted a video on Monday showing what they described as “semi-levitation” of the sample.

The experiments, both institutional and DIY, have sparked a lot of online conversation—including an outpouring of memes and jokes about improvised home laboratories.

“In science fiction, there are a number of ‘impossible’ technologies that make a fictional world possible,” Sanada said. “Faster-than-light, human-like AI, fusion power, and room-temperature superconductors. I think the excitement here is the same as the response to ChatGPT, and Stable Diffusion, both of which I also experimented with. If I may be so bold to say, it feels like we're on the knife-edge of the point of no return—no one can truly see a world-changing event like a singularity from the inside, so perhaps we're in one right now? Those are the feelings I have.”

Still, experts in the field are skeptical that the study’s results will be validated by hobbyists.

“There is almost zero chance that a non-professional will be able to reproduce these results and a large part of the reason is technical,” said Fowlie. “It is true that the equipment required is found in a standard solid state lab so in that sense the procedure is quite accessible. But there are thousands of University labs in the world that can make these samples. Hundreds of them already make similar samples so they have the expertise.”

“Why is expertise so important? Because synthesis is complex, even a synthesis using only bread-and-butter equipment and based on a detailed published procedure, as in this case,” she continued. “It typically requires multiple stages of feedback between synthesis and characterization.”

Update: This article was updated with comment from Sinéad Griffin from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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