Superconductors’ Viral ‘LK-99’ Moment Takes Investors for a Wild Ride

Semiconductor-linked shares surged this week on the Korea Exchange, in Seoul, where performers marked the year’s first trading day in January.
Semiconductor-linked shares surged this week on the Korea Exchange, in Seoul, where performers marked the year’s first trading day in January.


  • Share prices skyrocket, then sink, for companies that don’t even have a direct link to room-temperature superconductors

The hope and hype surrounding superconductors took off this week, as stocks with a perceived connection to the latest research swung wildly and videos by once-obscure scientists went viral.

Late last month, a group of scientists from South Korea and Virginia’s William & Mary, in two academic papers that hadn’t undergone peer review, claimed a breakthrough that opened “a new era for humankind." It relates to the so-called LK-99 crystal, a superconductor that consists of a lead-based compound seasoned with copper.

The material, the group claimed, showed the properties of a superconductor that transmits electrical currents without resistance at room temperature and at ambient pressure—a long-running scientific pursuit that, if valid, would usher in generational advances in chips, power grids and computing systems.

The word “superconductors" trended widely online this week. Share prices surged for companies in the U.S., China and South Korea whose operations overlap with superconductors—and even some that lack a direct link—before the gains reversed late in the week. A video uploaded by Chinese researchers, who backed some of LK-99’s traits, attracted nearly 10 million views.

But many scientists see LK-99’s claims, for now, as more viral than verifiable. The fervor speaks to the immense potential of room-temperature superconductors as well as limited public understanding of the technology and its prospects. A superconductor refers to a material that conducts electricity without energy loss and expels magnetic fields while transitioning to the superconducting state, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The buzz around superconductors has remained elevated since March. That is when Ranga Dias, a physicist at the University of Rochester, published a piece in the prestigious journal Nature, arguing the rare-earth metal lutetium combined with nitrogen and hydrogen was a superconductor at a temperature of 69 degrees Fahrenheit. It also did so at pressures less extreme than what is required for many known superconducting materials. Dias’s claim and his prior work have been heavily scrutinized by his scientific peers, including accusations of fabricated data and plagiarism.

Like all previous reports of such “unidentified superconducting objects," the South Korea-led group’s findings will be “taken seriously once other groups reproduce them and then weigh in on whether this is a true superconductor or just an unusual kind of diamagnet," said Michael Norman, a condensed matter physicist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Several efforts are under way to verify the LK-99 claims, including one led by Argonne. Some initial attempts at verification have shown promise, such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s simulations that have supported LK-99 in theory. Others have concluded that the material doesn’t display the appearance of bulk superconductivity at room temperature.

They are reacting to a pair of papers posted last week by scientists, most of whom work for the privately heldQuantum Energy Research Center in Seoul. They uploaded their findings to arXiv, a global repository for unpublished science research. One of the scientists also provided a video showing a small sample of the material partially levitated over a magnet in an apparent demonstration of superconductivity.

LK-99 is named after the initials of the surnames of two of the scientists—Lee Suk-bae and Kim Ji-hoon of the Quantum Energy Research Center—and 1999, the year the material was reportedly synthesized by them.

Quantum Energy Research Center didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

Some compounds composed of metals including aluminum, zinc, and mercury are known to exhibit superconducting behaviors, though only at extreme pressures and temperatures. That has made them unfeasible or impractical for widespread use.

The enthusiasm for LK-99 triggered wild stock swings. Given the current concentration of manufacturing expertise in Asian countries like South Korea, Japan and China, it is highly probable that companies from these countries would play a significant role in developing and implementing superconductors when they are ready for more practical applications.

Several little-known South Korean companies with presumed ties to superconductors received investor warnings after share prices skyrocketed. One, Sunam, which makes high-temperature wiring and electromagnets involved in superconductors, hit the daily maximum level of 30% gains for three straight days. Trading of Sunam shares were halted Friday for one day after surges that occurred after the warning. Another company, Mobiis, involved in nuclear fusion and particle-accelerator technologies, rose 19% this week through Thursday, then fell roughly by 28% by Friday’s close.

Despite having no involvement in superconductors, a third South Korean company, Shinsung Delta Tech, hit maximum gains on Tuesday and Wednesday before selling off. The rise came from Shinsung’s ownership stake in a venture-capital firm that has invested in the Quantum Research Institute.

In the U.S., shares of American Superconductor, which specializes in high-temperature superconducting wires, skyrocketed by roughly 60% on Tuesday, before the gains reversed in the following days.

Several Chinese companies saw their stock prices soar and fall as the LK-99 video went viral. The investor attention prompted Shanghai-listed Benefo, which rose 34% in recent days, to clarify that it has no related work now to room-temperature superconductivity. In the past, a subsidiary had engaged in some high-temperature superconducting research. Meanwhile, Shenzhen-listed TICW pointed out the same lack of a room-temperature superconducting exposure, though its stock price surged roughly 70% this week.

Even if LK-99 were found to exhibit superconductivity, engineers would still need to determine how to implement the material into their products, leaving major steps before any commercialization is considered, said Rino Choi, a materials engineering professor at Inha University in South Korea. He said the recent findings appear to be “too primitive."

On Tuesday, a team led by a professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, released a video on China’s YouTube-like platform, claiming they had verified the synthesis of the LK-99 crystal that can magnetically levitate for the first time, with a larger levitation angle than the previous sample obtained by the South Korean team. By Friday evening, the video had millions of views, generated some 740,000 likes and received more than 65,000 comments. Calls to Huazhong went unanswered.

Superconductors could revolutionize product design in consumer electronics, such as smartphones and laptops, as they would render many current thermal systems, optical fibers, and wires unnecessary, said Ming-chi Kuo, an analyst at TF International Securities.

Catch all the Technology News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.



Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App