Have We Created the Philosopher’s Stone? Policymakers Should Care about Room-Temperature Superconductors

Have We Created the Philosopher’s Stone? Policymakers Should Care about Room-Temperature Superconductors

A recent discovery has the potential to unleash a world of energy abundance, floating trains, and geopolitical transformation.

A recent development has rocked the scientific community over the past two weeks. Advocates proclaim that we now potentially stand on the brink of a transformative age in technology that could render our current power network and level of technology as quaintly outdated as the telegraph.

The harbinger of this new age? Room-temperature superconductors—materials that conduct electricity with perfect efficiency, without the need for deep chilling. If viable, then the arrival of these superconductors is not just a technological leap; it’s a paradigm shift with significant implications for the economy, national security and defense policy, and the future of energy consumption.

First, however, we must determine whether these superconductors can truly be made. Policymakers and experts ought to be aware of the currently unfolding events.

The Quest for the Holy Grail

Let’s start with some basic science. A superconductor, as the name suggests, is a material that can conduct electricity with zero resistance. In other words, it allows an electric current to flow indefinitely without any loss of energy. Compare this to say, contemporary batteries, which can lose up to 25 percent of stored energy over time.

If that sounds astounding, that’s because it is. However, this magic comes with a caveat: traditional superconductors only function in high-pressure, low-temperature environments akin to those found in the deepest recesses of outer space, thus limiting their practical application.

Enter room-temperature superconductors. As the name indicates, these are superconductors that operate at temperatures you would typically find in your everyday environment. The quest for this radical development has been ongoing for decades, with physicists and material scientists around the globe drawn to this scientific holy grail like bees to honey.

As of late last month, it appears that the grail may—just may—have been found. A group of South Korean scientists published papers claiming that they had developed a room-temperature, standard atmospheric pressure superconductor utilizing a lead-based material now dubbed “LK-99.” The scientists’ results have supposedly been successfully replicated by Chinese researchers. Other physicists around the world are racing to see if they too can create functioning LK-99. A preprint from Sinéad M. Griffin, a physicist from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, provides an explanation of what the South Korean scientists have seen. Yet other efforts to reproduce the results have predominantly fallen short. The School of Materials Science and Engineering at Beihang University in China attempted to replicate the LK-99 team’s process but encountered different outcomes. Likewise, a team at the National Physical Laboratory of India also failed.

The jury is thus still out on whether or not LK-99 is indeed a viable room-temperature superconductor—we are still extremely early in the scientific investigative process. We must wait until respected national laboratories, institutions, and others more thoroughly experiment with the process. We simply will not know for days, perhaps even weeks, whether LK-99 is in fact the real thing. Even if it isn’t, however, current results indicate that, at the very least, the compound’s discovery “suggests new lines of research” into room-temperature superconductors.

A Scientific Revolution…

But let us suppose, for a moment, that LK-99 is indeed the real thing. Or, at the very least, that there is now theoretical evidence that room-temperature superconductors are possible and we’ll have the real thing developed within a decade or so. If so, why should this matter to us?

The answer is that the potential applications of this new superconductor, if viable, are nothing short of revolutionary.

Our current electrical grid leaks enormous amounts of energy as heat due to resistance in wires. Now envision a world where electrical power grids lose virtually no energy in transmission. Room-temperature superconductors could lead to “perfect” power lines, supercharging the efficiency of our power infrastructure, slashing energy costs in the billions of dollars, reducing carbon footprints, and invigorating the growth of renewable energy. Moreover, smaller, more efficient electrical equipment is possible. Think electric vehicles with dramatically improved range, or data centers consuming less power.

Further radical effects would be felt in various fields.

In transportation, the introduction of room-temperature superconductors could herald the advent of high-speed, magnetically levitated trains that whizz along at blistering speeds with unmatched energy efficiency—New York City to Los Angeles in twenty minutes flat. This could revolutionize both intercity travel and freight delivery, dramatically reducing commute and delivery times while making a significant dent in transportation-related emissions.

In the realm of information technology, these superconductors could catalyze the development of quantum computers. The technology, while still in its nascent stages, promises computational capabilities that make today’s most powerful supercomputers seem rudimentary. With room-temperature superconductors, this could become commonplace—comparable with the equivalent of the most advanced modern supercomputer being condensed into the size of a smartphone.

In medicine, room-temperature superconductors would turbocharge existing high-tech applications. Regular superconductors are already used here; they are the hidden champions powering Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, allowing doctors to peer inside the human body in unprecedented detail, all without a single incision. Yet these require cryogenic temperatures to function. Room-temperature superconductors would, in the words of one engineer, “make MRI’s both more accessible, affordable, and also increase resolution to the sub micro-meter scale. Autodocs for all.”

In short, the impact of room-temperature superconductors would likely be seismic. The advent of these superconductors could usher in an era of unprecedented industrial growth, igniting the birth of entirely new industries, driving economic growth, and generating millions of jobs in sectors ranging from technology and transportation to energy and healthcare. The companies that harness this transformative technology could emerge as global economic powerhouses.

…and a Geopolitical Revolution?

But perhaps the greatest impact lies in the realm of national security, defense, and foreign policy.

Military systems depend heavily on electricity, from aircraft carriers down to the individual soldier’s gear. Room-temperature superconductors could mean more efficient and compact power systems, lighter and longer-lasting batteries, and more powerful radar and sonar systems. The U.S. military’s ability to project power around the globe would be significantly enhanced, as would its ability to sustain operations in remote areas.

Moreover, as the military becomes more electrified and networked, the vulnerability of its power infrastructure becomes a critical concern. Superconducting cables are resistant to many types of disruption and could theoretically even be designed to automatically “heal” after a break, greatly improving the resilience of the military’s power networks.

More broadly, room-temperature superconductors could reshape global geopolitical dynamics by altering the strategic significance of energy resources. If room-temperature superconductors lead to cheaper, more efficient storage and transmission of renewable energy, nations with abundant renewable resources could gain a strategic advantage. Oil-dependent economies could find their power waning.

Yet a superconductive world is not without its significant risks. The potential military applications of room-temperature superconductors could lead to a new technological arms race. Governments across the globe would quickly recognize the strategic importance of this technology and rush to stake their claim, leading to international disputes over patents, technology transfers, and market access. There are significant national security implications if other nations master this technology first, or if the United States fails to secure its supply chains for the requisite critical materials needed to make room-temperature superconductors.

This is not a prospect to be taken lightly, and policymakers must factor in these considerations while shaping policies.

When the Magic Becomes Real

The quest for room-temperature superconductors thus paints a tantalizing picture of a future that may be within our grasp—one where energy flows freely without loss, high-speed trains levitate on invisible magnetic tracks, and quantum computers hum in offices worldwide. Washington could perhaps speed up this transformation through a variety of means: increased funding for research and development, tax incentives for companies investing in superconductor technology, and strategic public-private partnerships that share the financial risks and rewards of this ground-breaking technology.

But the superconductive moment, such as it is, also presents us with a formidable challenge: how to harness the transformative potential of this technology while navigating the geopolitical tensions and policy challenges it presents. The superconductive transition would be massively disruptive, with entire industries falling prey to technological change, oil-rich and technologically-poor nations suddenly falling behind, and new dangers manifesting.

The balance that must be struck is a delicate one, melding the drive for economic growth and technological superiority with the pursuit of international cooperation and sustainable progress. It is incumbent that policymakers be extremely careful in this effort.

Ultimately, time will tell whether LK-99 is the real deal; a viable room temperature superconductor, with all that such implies.

It is also incredibly ironic that the South Korean scientists behind LK-99 used lead. Perhaps the ancient alchemists were right all along: lead can be transformed into gold.

Carlos Roa is the Executive Editor of The National Interest.

Image: Shutterstock.