Material consideration – search for a room-temperature superconductor | 19 August 2023 | UPSC Daily Editorial Analysis

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What's the article about?

  • It talks about the controversy surrounding the superconducting material LK-99.


  • GS3: Science and Technology- Developments and their Applications and Effects in Everyday Life;
  • Prelims


  • The material known as LK-99 was claimed to be the world's first room temperature superconductor by a group of South Korean researchers. However, recent findings have shown that LK-99 is not a superconductor at all.
  • The content of the article is not very important for CSE; however, the topic of superconductors forms part of the GS3 Science and Technology syllabus.

What is a superconductor?

  • A superconductor is a material that can conduct electricity or transport electrons from one atom to another with no resistance.
  • This means that when a superconductor is cooled to a critical temperature, it can conduct electricity with no resistance or energy loss.
  • Any material exhibiting these properties is a superconductor.
  • Unlike an ordinary metallic conductor, whose resistance decreases gradually as its temperature is lowered, even down to near absolute zero, a superconductor has a characteristic critical temperature below which the resistance drops abruptly to zero.
  • The “holy grail” of superconductor research is to find a material that can act as a superconductor at room temperatures.

What are practical applications of superconductors?

  • Superconductors have a wide range of practical applications in various fields. Here are some of the most notable applications of superconductors:
    • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Superconducting coils make possible the very powerful electromagnets at work in some of the MRI machines used by doctors to examine soft tissue inside their patients.
    • Levitating Trains: Superconductors are used in MagLev trains, which float above the track using superconducting magnets, eliminating friction and energy loss as heat, allowing the train to reach high speeds.
    • Power Transmission: Superconducting cables permit high power transmission without power loss, making them useful in high power transmission lines.
    • Electromagnets: Superconducting magnets are used in particle accelerators, synchrotrons, and cyclotrons. They are also used in highly accurate magnetoencephalograms.
    • Supercomputers: Superconductors have been used experimentally to speed up connections between computer chips.
    • Energy Storage: Magnetic Energy storage Devices are made possible by superconductors.
    • Medical Diagnosis: Superconducting quantum Interferometers (SQUIDS) are used in the medical industry.
    • Electromagnetic Shielding: Superconductors can be used for electromagnetic shielding.
    • Bearings: The Meissner effect is made use of in bearings.
    • Superconducting Transformers: Superconductors are used in the making of superconducting transformers.
  • Superconductors have already been put to a number of uses and have enormous potential impact on everyday life.

Why we want room temperature superconductor?

  • Room temperature superconductors are materials that can conduct electrical current with zero resistance at temperatures that can be reached and easily maintained in an everyday environment.
  • The potential benefits of room temperature superconductors include:
    • Efficient electronics: Superconductors make highly efficient electronics, but the ultra-low temperatures and ultra-high pressures required to make them work are costly and difficult to implement. Room-temperature superconductors promise to change that.
    • Practical applications: Room-temperature superconducting materials would lead to many new possibilities for practical applications, including ultra-efficient electricity grids, ultra-fast and energy-efficient computer chips, and ultra-powerful magnets that can be used to levitate trains and control fusion reactors.
    • Reduced challenges: Room-temperature superconductors would remove many of the challenges associated with the high cost of operating superconductor-based circuits and systems and make it easier to use them in the field.
    • High-speed interconnects: Room-temperature superconductors would enable ultra high-speed digital interconnects for next-generation computers and low-latency broadband wireless communications. They would also enable high-resolution imaging techniques and emerging sensors for biomedical and security.
  • If room temperature superconductors were real, they could reduce the size and electricity requirements of the electromagnets that maglevs need, but it wouldn't solve all the problems.
  • However, researchers are still working on finding a material that can exhibit superconductivity at room temperature, and it remains a topic of ongoing research.

The Indian government has made efforts in the field of superconductors through various initiatives and missions. Here are some key points regarding the Indian government's efforts in the field of superconductors:

  • National Superconductivity Mission (NSM):
    • The NSM is an initiative launched by the Government of India in 2017 to promote research and development in the field of superconductivity.
    • It consists of multiple projects in the areas of basic research, applications, and short-term demonstration studies.
  • Quantum Technology Mission:
    • In addition to superconductivity, the Indian government has also focused on quantum technology.
    • The National Quantum Mission (NQM) was approved by the government to nurture and scale up scientific and industrial research and development in the field of quantum technology.
    • The mission aims to develop intermediate-scale quantum computers, magnetometers, atomic clocks, and quantum materials such as superconductors.
  • Collaboration and Support:
    • The Indian government has been actively collaborating with various institutions and organizations to support the growth of superconductivity and quantum technology in the country.
    • These collaborations aim to provide access to quantum computers, tools, and resources to accelerate the adoption of quantum computing in India.
  • Overall, the Indian government's efforts in the field of superconductors includes promoting research and development, supporting projects in basic research and applications, and fostering collaboration and partnerships with institutions and organizations. These initiatives aim to advance the understanding and application of superconductivity and quantum technology in India.


  • The scientific community has concluded that LK-99 is not a room-temperature and ambient-pressure superconductor, despite the initial claim by a group of South Korean researchers.
  • The claim was tested by independent scientists who published their findings as preprint papers that were free to read. The episode highlights the benefits and challenges of open science.
  • Evidence Against LK-99 as a Superconductor:
    • Independent researchers found that LK-99 was an insulator whose impurities could be magnetized, leading to the half-repulsion seen in the video shared by the South Korean group.
    • Additionally, scientists observed that the electrical resistivity of LK-99 dropped sharply at around 104° Celsius, a potential sign of superconductivity.
    • However, the drop was observed only if the material contained copper sulphide as an impurity, which undergoes a phase transition at that temperature, distorting the resistivity.
  • Burden of Proof:
    • The burden of proof is now back on the South Korean group to provide evidence that LK-99 is indeed a superconductor.

Way Forward:

  • The LK-99 episode suggests that participating in open science can lead to more good science but also, in the presence of bad-faith actors, to misunderstanding and confusion.
  • The online diffusion of information and data in this episode achieved something the world seldom has: near-real-time and crowd-organized documentation, collaboration rather than competition, and closure. The compunctions with the latter should not hold back the former.

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