DIY Race to Replicate LK-99

DIY Race to Replicate LK-99

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Superconductors

All that Andrew McCalip wanted for his 34th birthday was a shipment of red phosphorus, an essential ingredient for making a room-temperature superconductor. McCalip, an engineer at Varda Space Industries, was determined to replicate the discovery of LK-99, a material claimed by a group of South Korean researchers to exhibit superconductivity at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. The scientific community was abuzz with excitement, and the internet was cheering McCalip and others like him on.

Superconductivity, a phenomenon in which electrical resistance drops to zero, typically occurs only under extreme conditions such as extreme cold or high pressure. The researchers behind LK-99 claimed that their material exhibited these properties at room temperature and showed evidence of zero resistance at 400 Kelvin. They even released a video showing the material levitating above a magnet, suggesting the presence of the Meissner effect, a hallmark of superconductivity. If the claims were true, it could mean a revolution in technology, from resistanceless power lines to levitating trains.

However, experts were skeptical. Multiple versions of the LK-99 paper had inconsistent data, and the researchers lacked the usual tests to confirm superconductivity. Spurious claims in the field were all too common. Nevertheless, physicists like Richard Greene from the University of Maryland emphasized the importance of investigating claims like these. Throughout his career, Greene had seen advances come from puzzling papers exploring unfamiliar materials. He believed that even seemingly strange or inconsistent results could lead to new discoveries.

The news of LK-99 prompted physicists from around the world to join the pursuit of this potential breakthrough. At a physics retreat in Aspen, Colorado, specialists in condensed matter physics and computational materials physics were hard at work. They were studying the proposed material, attempting to understand its electronic structure and whether it conformed to existing theories of superconductivity.

Meanwhile, McCalip and his DIY team at Varda Space Industries were busy conducting their own experiments in public. McCalip’s intention was clear: to capture video evidence of the Meissner effect and levitation. Their progress was broadcast via a Twitch livestream, attracting thousands of viewers eager to witness the potential discovery firsthand.

Making LK-99 was no easy task. McCalip’s lab required four ingredients: red phosphorus, copper, lead sulfate, and lead oxide. These materials would be processed and combined to create the desired compound. McCalip faced challenges in acquiring the necessary components, as red phosphorus is a controlled substance due to its association with meth production. However, he managed to secure the required ingredients, albeit through unconventional means.

As the Varda engineers set up their furnaces and waited for the ingredients to synthesize the compound, anticipation grew both online and within the scientific community. However, doubts began to emerge. The South Korean researchers had presented a recipe with incomplete instructions, leaving critical details out of the equation. Nonetheless, McCalip remained confident that his team could produce LK-99, or at least an approximation of it.

Throughout the weekend, while their experiments continued, McCalip experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. Skepticism from the scientific community dampened the initial excitement surrounding LK-99. Questions arose about whether the levitation observed was due to diamagnetism rather than true superconductivity. Reports from other labs claiming to have produced LK-99 without observing superconductivity added to the confusion. The situation became increasingly complex, with various theories and experimental results circulating both online and within research circles.

Still, McCalip remained focused on his goal: to make LK-99 and test it for superconductivity. His determination was driven by a genuine curiosity and a belief in the value of pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Regardless of the outcome, he recognized that his experiment was just one step in the scientific process, and more replications and investigations would follow.

So, while the world watched and debated the potential breakthrough, McCalip and his team continued their work. More batches of the required compound were being synthesized, and the copper phosphide, a crucial component, was on its way. McCalip hoped to achieve the Meissner effect in his lab and planned to conduct further tests at a materials science lab at the University of Southern California.

Though doubts remained, McCalip saw the pursuit of LK-99 as an opportunity for scientific exploration. Whether it turned out to be the holy grail of superconductors or not, the journey itself was filled with fascination and the spirit of discovery. And that, for McCalip, was what dreams were made of.

McCalip puts a sample in the furnace at Varda McCalip puts a sample in the furnace at Varda that’s being used to cook up the lanarkite. (Courtesy of Andrew McCalip)

McCalip’s initial batch of lanarkite McCalip’s initial batch of lanarkite, a mineral that will be combined with copper phosphide to produce LK-99. (Courtesy of Andrew McCalip)

Source: Wired