In a residential area in southeastern Seoul is a red-brick, four-story building that looks like any other in the neighborhood. But a basement office there is home to the research center whose extraordinary claims about a breakthrough in superconductor technology have shocked the scientific community and captivated the world.
The location in Songpa district is the registered address of the Quantum Energy Research Centre, whose researchers Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim, along with other South Korean experts, said in pre-publication papers posted last month that they have synthesized the world's first superconductor known as LK-99 that is capable of conducting electricity with zero-resistance at room temperature with ambient pressure.
The claim has been met with widespread excitement globally, sending related stocks soaring in South Korea and China, but also skepticism as past claims had been later proven wrong.
Multiple attempts to reach the scientists at the Quantum Energy Research Centre were not answered. No one responded when a Bloomberg News reporter knocked on the center's locked doors or reached out via LinkedIn. Goods including bottles of sparkling water delivered to the center's address have been left untouched outside the office's entrance. The center's website has also been closed and says it is "under construction."
However, Kim Hyun Tak, one of the authors of the papers who is a research professor of physics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said the skeptical reaction is expected.
"It's common practice when a new crucial discovery or invention is made public that there are more people who say that it's not credible," Kim said in a Zoom interview. "It's a natural thing for some people to laugh at it because it's the first time, and they don't even know what it is, but as time passes, they start to believe it."
The scientific community is now focusing on trying to ascertain the extraordinary claims. Michael Biercuk, professor of quantum physics at the University of Sydney and the chief executive officer and founder of quantum sensing company Q-CTRL, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV that it is crucial the claims are verified as there have been "major scientific attraction scandals where big claims were made and later shown to be incorrect."
"We are hopeful that that's not the case here, but everybody is waiting to see what happens," he said.
The Korean Society of Superconductivity and Cryogenics has asked the Quantum Energy Research Centre to submit samples required for the verification process, the body said in a statement this week.
"The claim of a room-temperature superconductor discovery is causing great controversy at home and abroad, but we are concerned about the situation in which unverified claims are being poured out by fellow researchers without an entity responsible for verifying it," the statement said.
Changgu Lee, a material synthesis expert at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said that the verification process is similar to cooking in that while the "recipe" for LK-99 is well written, there are some specifics that are missing. The "cooking" itself might take around four days, he said, but more trials are needed to match the precise conditions under which the researchers conducted their experiments.
"The recipe may say 'one big spoonful of soy sauce and a carrot,' but the carrot may come in different sizes and depending on that the flavor of the dish may change," Lee said. "We have to record the materials and methods very precisely."
In response to questions about why the Quantum Energy Research Centre hasn't provided the materials to other scientists, Kim said that it doesn't have enough inventory of the LK-99 compound nor time to recreate it, and that the researchers have been distracted by the number of journalists trying to contact them.
"You know that the office is extremely small and in a poor state." he said. "It's so small, and you need the money to make the compounds. That's why they cannot mass-produce it."
Despite the questions, he remained defiant that the research was sound.
"The experimental data speaks for itself," Kim said. "We know it because we're the ones who synthesized it and conducted the studies."