A Controversial Superconductor Paper Has Finally Been Retracted by Nature

If you’ve found the superconductor highs and lows of the past year to be exhausting, you are not alone.

The field has been plagued by a series of astonishing claims followed by skepticism, social media turmoil, failures to replicate, accusations of misconduct and eventual retractions.

Now, Nature – one of the top scientific journals in the world – has retracted a study that claims to have created a room-temperature superconductor from hydrogen, a shiny-gray metal called lutetium, and a dash of nitrogen.

This comes a few months after the authors of the paper asked for their own paper to be retracted.

Initially, the study was met with excitement – as well as suspicion – when it was published in March this year. Even ScienceAlert covered the peer-reviewed results when they were released.

Had it been verified, the finding may have led to the creation of specialized electrical systems that could run efficiently with zero resistance using little cooling (although it would have still initially required some equipment to pile on 10,000 atmospheres of pressure).

While it might not quite have led to levitating trains or highly efficient energy grids, it could have been handy for fusion reactors or improved MRI machines.

But, to some experts, this breakthrough seemed too good to be true – and it was.

Experts contacted Nature to express concerns about “the reliability of the electrical resistance data presented in the paper”, Nature said. After an investigation, the journal concluded that “these concerns are credible, substantial and remain unresolved”.

The retraction came after eight of the study’s 11 authors sent a letter to the journal asking for the paper to be retracted. This caused us to update our initial coverage back in September 2023.

In the new Retraction Note, Nature writes that these eight authors “have expressed the view … that the published paper does not accurately reflect the provenance of the investigated materials, the experimental measurements undertaken and the data-processing protocols applied.”

These eight authors “have concluded that these issues undermine the integrity of the published paper,” Nature writes.

In their letter, the eight authors distanced themselves from the research leader – physicist Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester in New York – who they said did not act in good faith in the preparation and submission of the manuscript.

Dias filed a patent for this discovery in June. He previously founded a company called Unearthly Materials to commercialize his superconductor research and has raised US$16.5 million from investors.

This was the second time in two years that a paper on room-temperature superconductors by Dias and another member of this team had been retracted by Nature.

Dias and physicist Ashkan Salamat at University of Nevada in Las Vegas had previously claimed to have created a high-temperature superconductor using carbonaceous sulfur hydride, but the study was retracted by Nature last year.

Another paper co-authored by Dias and Salamat was retracted from Physical Review Letters in August.

According to Nature’s news division, Dias objected to the first two retractions and has not responded about the latest. Salamat supported the two retractions made this year. (Salamat is also a shareholder, but no longer an employee, at Unearthly Materials.)

Allegations have also been made that around 20 percent of Dias’ PhD thesis was plagiarized, and Science has published a 109-page analysis illustrating the extent of the issue.

The University of Rochester (where Dias works as a professor of mechanical engineering and physics) launched an investigation after the retraction in Physical Review Letters in August, according to The New York Times.

This saga comes on the heels of the LK-99 controversy, which caused a frenzy on social media in August after preprints suggested that this material could also be a room-temperature superconductor.

When dozens of replication attempts failed, experts had to conclude that this material had none of the alluring properties promised by the preprints.

The Retraction Note was published by the journal Nature.


Author: showrunner