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Electric cars in China

Tesla wins green light in China to use cobalt-free batteries

Shift to new technology cuts costs and improves supply stability

A Tesla showroom in Shanghai in May: The electric-car brand is changing what powers its made-in-China cars.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Tesla has received approval from China to assemble electric cars with batteries that contain an alternative to cobalt, an expensive metal whose production is linked to child labor.

The cobalt-free batteries will be used in the U.S. automaker's Model 3 vehicles, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a notice published Thursday.

Though the document did not name the supplier, the batteries will be made by China's Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd., the global industry leader known as CATL, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Cobalt is mostly produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country cited for use of child labor in mines. With few options for diversifying sources, the metal's supply is at a risk of instability.

Instead, Tesla has been turning to lithium iron phosphate batteries, the type authorized by China's industry ministry.

Lithium iron phosphate, or LFP, batteries are known to be low cost and safer, as they are less prone to overheating. But they have lower energy density, necessitating larger sizes for power storage capacity.

LFP batteries normally appear in buses and commercial vehicles, while passenger vehicles use batteries made from a blend of nickel, cobalt and manganese. Tesla's use of LFP batteries in its Model 3 suggests it has been able to raise the performance high enough to make the practical for cars.

Tesla produces electric vehicles for the Chinese market in Shanghai. The American automaker's battery suppliers include Japan's Panasonic and South Korea's LG Chem.

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