Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Scandal over fake studies – superconductor research continues to search for efficient electricity

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There are always false reports about supposedly fantastic new superconductors that are supposed to transport electricity without resistance even at room temperature. Does superconductor research have a problem?

The news made waves not only in expert circles: a decades-long search was over – a superconductor that worked at room temperature and normal pressure had been found.

This was stated in a South Korean study that was published in advance in July. That would be nothing less than the “holy grail” of solid state research. The media response was great, the experts were skeptical.

Superconductors at room temperature and normal pressure

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Superconductors have various technical applications because they conduct electricity without resistance under certain conditions. However, the superconductors known today have to be cooled in a complex manner and sometimes have to be put under great pressure. That is why a superconductor that would function at room temperature and normal pressure is considered the “holy grail” of solid-state research.

Such a superconductor could make our power grid much more efficient, thanks to resistance-free cables and transformers. A lot of electricity could be saved. Such a superconductor is also suitable for generating strong magnetic fields, which is useful for magnetic levitation trains or MRI machines. The latter now use highly cooled superconductors and could become more affordable and better with new materials.

Bernhard Keimer, director at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, immediately decided to check the material called “LK-99”. He and his research group quickly came to the conclusion that the alleged superconductor was actually a good insulator.

There was no ill will behind it, says Keimer: “These were incompetent researchers and that was quickly proven.”

Damage to the image of superconductor research

After around three weeks, the “LK-99” spook was over. Nevertheless, such cases are problematic, says Bernhard Holzapfel from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology: “If such huge expectations are raised, which are then regularly disappointed, the entire potential of superconductivity is discredited.”

Bernhard Holzapfel sees a deeper problem. Publishing quickly is very important for research careers, also in order to receive research funding. According to Holzapfel, “there is a high risk of making advance publications that turn out to be incorrect.”

He slightly modified data from another material and sold it as data from a new superconductor.

Fraud with fake data

Another case involving researcher Ranga Dias from the University of Rochester in New York is particularly serious. At the beginning of November 2023, the journal “Nature” retracted a paper by the researcher in which a room temperature superconductor was propagated. This is the third retracted paper for Dias.

Retracted paper

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Trade magazine “Nature”

Report on the website of the journal “Nature” about the retracted paper by the researcher Rangas Dias.

Bernhard Keimer from the Max Planck Institute sees this as a case of fraud: “He slightly changed data from another material and sold it as data from a new superconductor.”

There is a lot to gain

Keimer also sees a financial motivation behind Dias’ fraud, because the discovery of a room temperature superconductor is potentially good business. Dias was looking for money for his own company.

Because a breakthrough in superconductor research would be so immense, it may attract people who are overly optimistic with data or even bend the truth

Henrik Ronnow, who researches superconductors in Lausanne, says: “Since a breakthrough in superconductor research would be so huge, it can attract people who are too optimistic with data or even bend the truth.” But there are fraudsters everywhere, emphasizes the head of the Physics Institute at EPFL.

Great optimism

The fact that big claims sometimes turn out to be false is not necessarily harmful, says Ronnow. As in marketing, “there is no such thing as bad PR”. Over the summer, the term superconductor was a social media trend. Ronnow is pleased: “Even if it was because of a false claim, many people came into contact with the topic for the first time and were enthusiastic about it.”

There is great optimism in the research community that better superconductors than today’s ones will soon be found. The scientists surveyed agree on this. Bernhard Holzapfel would not be surprised if a room temperature superconductor were found tomorrow. The search for the “holy grail” continues.

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