The Material Basis of Modern Technologies – A Case Study on Rare Metals

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On 25th May, City-REDI held a webinar with George Li from The London School of Economics.

Rare earth elements are an essential material of many of today’s technologies, from hybrid cars to wind turbines and laptop computers. These rare earth elements are becoming increasingly prominent in high-tech industries and are regarded as ‘technology metals’. Through text mining on more than five million USPRO patents from 1976 to 2015, Dr George and his colleague Dr Andrea Ascani and Professor Simona Iammarino identify thirteen critical rare metals and try to answer (1) To what extent do different modern technologies depend on rare metals? and (2) Do changes in rare metal supply affect the innovation dynamics?

This study finds that the dependence between rare metals and frontier technology varies significantly across technological fields and metal types. During the last four decades, around 10% of patents granted by USPTO use rare metals as inputs, and the dependence is particularly high in semiconductors, nanotechnology, and green energy technologies. Moreover, the supply of rare metals directly impacts the frontier innovation dynamics. Rare metal supply has a positive causal impact on innovation rates. Meanwhile, rare metal supply becomes a potential constraint for future technologies’ development.


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