What kind of future would human have if there was a material that could conduct electricity without resistance at room temperature and pressure? Maglev trains, super grids, superconducting quantum computers… These scenarios that sound like science fiction might become reality.
But does such material really exist? Recently, a paper titled “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor” on a preprint website attracted the attention of the global scientific community and netizens. The paper claimed that a Korean research team discovered a room-temperature superconducting material called LK-99, and showed a video of it achieving magnetic levitation. Many netizens exclaimed that “the fourth industrial revolution is coming”.
However, the paper was requested to be withdrawn shortly after it was uploaded. The team was not a well-known research institution, and the main author was obscure. How did they discover LK-99? Did they really master the secret of room-temperature superconductivity?
Seo Sanghyeon, a software engineer at Lablup, a Korean AI company, sorted out the ins and outs of this “farce” event with his native language proficiency and familiarity with technical papers. He told NBD that all the information came from media reports and public papers.
The story of LK-99 dates back to 1993. That year, Chair Tong-seek, a chemistry professor at Korea University, proposed a superconductivity theory called “Interatomic Superconducting Band Theory” (ISB). This theory contradicted the mainstream views in the academic world, so it was not taken seriously. But his two students Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim discovered a material that might fit the ISB theory in 1999, and named it LK-99 according to the initials of their surnames plus the year of discovery.
Unfortunately, room-temperature superconductivity research was very difficult, and Sukbae Lee failed to get tenure and had to make a living by teaching computer courses at Dongguk University; Ji-Hoon Kim devoted himself to hearing aid battery research. As the two left academia, LK-99 research stalled.
Until 2017, Chair Tong-seek, who was about to die, regretted that he could not see the possibility of ISB theory and LK-99, and left a will, hoping that his disciples could further carry out research. Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim then invited Young-Wan Kwon, a research professor at Korea University, to join their Quantum Energy Research Center, as chief technology officer. The main purpose was to use Kwon’s relationship to use Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) and obtain research funding.
From left to right: Chair Tong-seek, Sukbae Lee, Young-Wan Kwon, Hyun-Tak Kim. Image source: network screenshot
Later, in 2022, the team invited Hyun-Tak Kim from William & Mary College in the United States to join the research team. Hyun-Tak Kim became the most internationally renowned scientist in the team. According to Sukbae Lee, he submitted a paper to Nature in 2020, but it was rejected because of the controversy caused by Ranga Dias’s room-temperature superconductivity paper published on Nature. It can be inferred that the team may want to use Hyun-Tak Kim’s academic reputation and familiarity with Western academic standards to publish their work on top journals.
When everything was going according to plan, on July 22, 2023, Young-Wan Kwon suddenly uploaded a rough paper on the preprint paper website without notifying anyone else. He used eye-catching expressions such as “The First Room-Temperature Ambient-Pressure Superconductor” and “Creating a New Era for Humanity”, and listed himself as the third author (after Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim). After learning of the news, Hyun-Tak Kim uploaded a six-author version two and a half hours later, deleting Kwon’s name and listing himself as the third author (the last three were other researchers from Quantum Energy Research Center). The content and data of this paper were more detailed and standardized, but there was still a document error of “bookmark undefined”, indicating that it was uploaded in a hurry.
Why did Young-Wan Kwon rush to publish the research? The rumor is that the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to three people at most. In addition to the two who discovered LK-99, the third person can only choose between Young-Wan Kwon and Hyun-Tak Kim, and obviously the latter plays a more central role now. According to Sukbae Lee’s statement, Young-Wan Kwon resigned from Quantum Energy Research Center four months ago and had nothing to do with it. Korean media also said that Korea University could not contact Young-Wan Kwon. The final reason may only wait for Young-Wan Kwon to come forward and explain.