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A new superconductor discovery could be a holy grail for climate -- or the latest scientific hoax

  • A new breakthrough in material science announced last month has big implications for the fight against global warming.

  • Two Korean researchers claim to have discovered a superconducting material that can be made at basically room temperature.

  • The discovery could unlock commercial viability of super fast trains and energy transmission systems with no loss of power

  • These breakthroughs could accelerate the path to net-zero emissions and keep the world at the 1.5 degree warming threshold.

Imagine zipping from New York to Los Angeles on a high-speed levitating train in less than an hour. Or paying around a penny for electricity thanks to improved efficiency in how power is delivered. Or being able to slash emissions on ocean-liners and cargo ships.

That's what may be possible thanks to the potential discovery of a new kind of superconducting material by two Korean scientists.

The two announced their possible breakthrough to the world in a pre-print paper that immediately caught the attention of message boards and publications like HackerNoon.

Superconductors are materials that can move electricity with zero resistance. That may not sound very impressive, but considering that the power transmission systems in the U.S. lose up to 7% of their electricity there's the potential for billions of dollars in energy savings if the materials can be manufactured at a large enough scale.

The movement of electricity without any energy loss also creates strong magnetic fields which can levitate objects (like the famous, superfast magnetic levitating train in Shanghai). Everything from atom-smashers to frequency filters can be made (or made better) with better superconductors.

It's why the discovery from Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim of South Korea's Quantum Energy Research Center matters so much.

It'd be a breakthrough that could disrupt several industries -- and spell trouble for startup companies that have spent years developing specialized superconductors for various applications.

These are companies like the Breakthrough Energy-backed Veir which has a technology to transmit power using high temperature superconductors and special cooling equipment. Or, potentially, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which uses high temperature superconductors to contain plasma used in its fusion reactors.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the two Korean researchers have managed to pull it off.

“They come off as real amateurs,” Michael Norman, a theorist at Argonne National Laboratory told the magazine Science in an interview last month. “They don't know much about superconductivity and the way they’ve presented some of the data is fishy.”

The potential flaws in the pre-print publication (which has not been peer-reviewed) haven't stopped a number of other researchers from attempting to replicate their work.

“People here are taking it seriously and trying to grow this stuff.” Nadya Mason, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign told Science. “I appreciate that the authors took appropriate data and were clear about their fabrication techniques.” Still, she cautions, “The data seems a bit sloppy.”

A lot of superconductors already exist in the world, but they're tricky to make. Most metals that have the ability to become superconductors need to be chilled to near absolute zero (the temperatures that exist in space) or superheated to very high temperatures before their superconducting powers can be activated.

The possible breakthrough that the Korean scientists achieved is making superconducting materials at room temperature. If it's repeatable it would mean that superconducting alloys could be manufactured at much lower costs accelerating the time it would take to make commercial applications of the technology viable.

Basically, as Science noted, if you have the right materials, you can basically bake the stuff (a mixture of lead, phosphorus, oxygen, and copper) in what's essentially an oven and out will come a superconducting material.

While it's not quite that easy, amateur scientists and professional researchers are racing to replicate the results. As the online publication Big Think put it, the world's in the "fog of war" right now.

But as results begin to roll in, the proof of Lee and Kim's discovery could transform some of the industries that could make the most difference in the fight against climate change -- and do it just in time.

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