As superconductivity becomes global topic, analysts say China's huge market will more likely drive large-scale applications
Published: Aug 07, 2023 07:45 PM
A concept photo of superconductor Photo: VCG

A concept photo of superconductor Photo: VCG

A team of South Korean researchers in late July claimed to have discovered a superconducting material, mainly a modified perovskite crystal structure (referred to as LK-99), a type of lead phosphate with copper doping, which allows electrical currents to flow without resistance or energy loss at ambient temperature and pressure. 

Immediately, the supposed finding caused unprecedented excitement among global experts in the field, with several research teams in China attempting to verify the synthesis of the new material while investors eyed vast opportunities.

However, the Korean Society of Superconductivity and Cryogenics on Thursday concluded that "LK-99 is not a superconductor as the material presents no negative resistance," the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Regardless of widespread skepticism and controversy over the South Korean research team's results, Chinese research fellows and investors said superconductivity technology at ambient temperature and pressure is an important development direction, and is expected to drive revolutionary development for sectors from high-speed electric maglev transportation system to healthcare and photovoltaic power.

Just like other emerging technologies such as ChatGPT, the Metaverse, blockchain and AI, superconductivity technology has attracted global attention, as major countries seek to accelerate their own technological revolution and take the driving seat in fierce international competition, said observers, who called for international cooperation and against US-led "tech decoupling" to strive for breakthroughs.

Controversy and frenzy 

On Monday, Chinese mainland companies related to superconductivity technology continued to rally on domestic stock boards. The Shanghai National Center of Testing and Inspection for Electric Cable and Wire Co closed up by the daily limit of 20 percent to 73.73 yuan ($10.3), with its share price doubling within a week. Jiangsu Etern Co climbed up 8.44 percent to 7.58 yuan while Tianjin Benefo Tejing Electric Co was up by 10 percent to 7.66 yuan.

"Although the new superconducting material has not been verified yet, its revolutionary and vast application potential has resonated among investors. We have wasted no time to learn more about the cutting-edge technology in recent days," Li He, a Beijing-based VC investor, told the Global Times on Monday.

On July 22, a research team from South Korea uploaded two papers online claiming that they had discovered the world's first room-temperature superconducting material - LK 99 - which works under ambient temperature and pressure. Previously, superconducting materials were thought to function only at absolute zero, according to media reports.

A team led by Chang Haixin, a professor at the School of Materials Science and Technology of Huazhong University of Science and Technology, released on August 1 a video saying that they had successfully verified the synthesis of LK-99 compound that can be magnetically levitate for the first time.

However, researchers of Chang's team stressed that although this crystal exhibits diamagnetism, it is relatively weak and does not possess "zero resistance." They believe that even if LK-99 has superconducting properties, it is unable to form a continuous superconducting path.

A number of research teams from other Chinese universities, including Southeast University in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province and Qufu Normal University in East China's Shandong Province, have also reportedly been conducting similar lab experiments. They didn't immediately offer their comments when they were reached by the Global Times on Monday.

Even if we find a material that really allows electrical currents to flow without resistance or energy loss, there is still a long way to go to achieve large-scale application, Yuan Lanfeng, a research fellow at the Hefei National Research Center for Physical Sciences at the Microscale under the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), told the Global Times on Monday. 

"For example, scientists found in 1986 that cuprate superconductors are a family of high-temperature superconducting materials. However, small-scale application was realized only in recent years because it requires the improvement of many manufacturing processes to increase material purity and reduce costs," he said.

Yuan said the current debate across the superconductivity sector would be helpful for making breakthroughs in the sector at a faster pace.

In the wake of the frenzy, Chinese research fellows should still focus on basic research, which is imperative to China's higher-level self-reliance and greater strength in science and technology, and is the only path to China becoming a world leader in science and technology, analysts said. 

Vast application potential

While warning against market hype over the cutting-edge technology, Yuan said superconductivity under ambient temperature and pressure, if realized, will deliver significant benefits to global society.

"Superconductivity means zero electric resistance and there will be no energy loss during power transmission. Currently, long-distance power transmission brings about 15 percent energy loss. If this could be avoided, energy efficiency could be greatly improved," Yuan said.

This will benefit the development of quantum computers and technological upgrade of electric maglev transportation system, Yuan said, noting that the service life of smart devices such as mobile phones and computers will be extended significantly.

"We have been looking at superconducting since the beginning of this year and now all of a sudden, the thing has become a hit. If it's proven, I bet it will spawn a number of start-ups, which will become early round investment targets," a manager surnamed Liu with a Beijing-based fund company told the Global Times on Monday.

The high-temperature superconducting is just being commercialized and that technology can be applied in large scale if cost can be aggressively driven down, Liu said.

In April, China's independently developed high temperature superconducting electric maglev transportation system completed its first suspension run, according to its developer CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. It can operate at a speed of 600 kilometers per hour or above.

Meanwhile, the city of Guangzhou and Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong Province, as well as adjacent Hong Kong are planning a high-speed maglev train route with a designed speed of 650 kilometers per hour, local media Guangzhou Daily reported on Monday.

"Room-temperature superconductivity technology, if achieved, will be a crucial innovation for the human civilization. Amid rising geopolitics and tense tech competition, major countries will consider the technology a strategic battleground in the future," an industry observer told the Global Times.

With powerful manufacturing capacity, China will more likely integrate this technology into real world applications, the observer said.