Catalytic Converters: The History of a Pollution-Fighting Invention

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Catalytic converters are one of the most important inventions in automotive history. They have been used to reduce pollution from cars for decades, and they continue to play a vital role in reducing emissions from vehicles today. In this article, we will explore the history of catalytic converters and the technology that makes them work. We will also take a look at some of the challenges faced by catalytic converter manufacturers and discuss how they are working to overcome them.

History and function of catalytic converters

Do all cars have catalytic converters? Catalytic converters were first developed in the early 1970s, and they quickly became mandatory equipment on all new cars sold in the United States and many other countries. The technology behind catalytic converters is based on a simple principle: when certain chemicals are exposed to oxygen, they can react with one another to create new compounds. This process is known as oxidation, and it is the key to how catalytic converters work.

Oxidation reactions can occur naturally, but they usually happen very slowly. Catalytic converters use a catalyst to speed up the oxidation process. The most common type of catalyst used in catalytic converters is platinum. Platinum is an extremely rare metal, which makes it very expensive. However, it is also very effective at catalyzing oxidation reactions.

Cutaway of a metal-core catalytic converter
Image: Stahlkocher / Wikimedia Commons

One of the challenges facing catalytic converter manufacturers is the fact that platinum is a very precious metal. As the price of platinum increases, so does the cost of manufacturing catalytic converters. In order to offset this cost, some manufacturers are looking into alternative catalyst materials. One promising candidate is palladium, which is similar to platinum in many ways but is much less expensive.

Another challenge facing catalytic converter manufacturers is the fact that car engines are getting more and more efficient. This means that they produce fewer exhaust gases, which reduces the amount of time that the catalytic converter has to work. This, in turn, reduces the amount of platinum that is required to make the converter work effectively.

Despite these challenges, catalytic converters continue to be an essential pollution-fighting technology. They have come a long way since they were first invented, and they will no doubt continue to evolve in order to meet the needs of a changing world.

How is a catalytic converter designed?

Catalytic converters are typically designed with a honeycomb-shaped substrate. The cells of the honeycomb-shaped substrate are designed to provide an increased surface area that can come into contact with the exhaust gases. The substrate is also typically coated with a precious metal catalyst, such as platinum or palladium.

The exhaust gases pass through the honeycomb cells and come into contact with the catalyst, which causes a chemical reaction that converts the harmful pollutants in the exhaust gases into less harmful substances. The most common pollutant that is converted by catalytic converters is carbon monoxide, which is converted into carbon dioxide.

Can one build a catalytic converter on their own?

Catalytic converters are a key part of reducing automotive pollution, and as such, are tightly regulated. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to build a catalytic converter for your own vehicle without following the proper regulations and ensuring that it meets emissions standards. However, there are companies that will sell you a catalytic converter kit that contains all the necessary parts and instructions.

While it is possible to buy a catalytic converter kit and install it yourself, it is generally advisable to have a professional mechanic do the job. Installing a catalytic converter is not a difficult task, but it does require some knowledge of automotive systems and emissions control. If you are not confident in your ability to properly install the catalytic converter, it is best to leave it to a professional.

Why would someone steal your catalytic converter?

What to do if your car is stolen might be clear but what if someone steals your catalytic converter? Is that even a thing? Because of the external location and the use of valuable precious metals including platinum, palladium, and rhodium, catalytic converters are a target for thieves. The problem is especially common among late-model trucks and SUVs, because of their high ground clearance and easily removed bolt-on catalytic converters. Welded-on converters are also at risk of theft, as they can be easily cut off.

Pipecutters are often used to quietly remove the converter but other tools such as a portable reciprocating saw can damage other components of the car, such as the alternator, wiring, or fuel lines, with potentially dangerous consequences. Rising metal prices in the U.S. during the 2000s commodities boom led to a significant increase in converter theft. A catalytic converter can cost more than $1,000 to replace, more if the vehicle is damaged during the theft.

Simulation of flow inside a catalytic converter
Image: Atif Masood (FetchCFD) / Wikimedia Commons

From 2019 to 2020, thieves in the United Kingdom were targeting older-model hybrid cars which have more precious metals than newer vehicles—sometimes worth more than the value of the car—leading to scarcity and long delays in replacing them. In 2021 a trend emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo where catalytic converters were stolen for use in drug production.

Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major global automotive producers, such as General Motors, Volkswagen, and Volvo cut ties with Russia, causing price increases of palladium, a major ingredient in the production of catalytic converters. Russia is the largest exporter of palladium, exporting over 100 tons in 2020. The conflict is expected to cause an increase in the theft of converters.

What if someone steals your catalytic converter?

Catalytic converters are a target for thieves because they contain valuable precious metals, including platinum, palladium, and rhodium. The problem is especially common among late-model trucks and SUVs, because of their high ground clearance and easily removed bolt-on catalytic converters. Welded-on converters are also at risk of theft, as they can be easily cut off.

Pipecutters are often used to quietly remove the converter but other tools such as a portable reciprocating saw can damage other components of the car, such as the alternator, wiring or fuel lines, with potentially dangerous consequences. Rising metal prices in the U.S. during the 2000s commodities boom led to a significant increase in converter theft. A catalytic converter can cost more than $1000 to replace, more if the vehicle is damaged during the theft.

From 2019-2020, thieves in the United Kingdom were targeting older-model hybrid cars which have more precious metals than newer vehicles—sometimes worth more than the value of the car—leading to scarcity and long delays in replacing them. In 2021, a trend emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo where catalytic converters were stolen for use in drug production.

Due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022, major global automotive producers, such as General Motors, Volkswagen, and Volvo cut ties with Russia, causing price increases of palladium, a major ingredient in the production of catalytic converters. Russia is the largest exporter of palladium, exporting over 100 tons in 2020. The conflict is expected to cause an increase in the theft of converters.

If your catalytic converter is stolen, you should report the theft to the police and your insurance company as soon as possible. You will likely need to pay a deductible, and your rates may go up if you live in an area where converter theft is common. To prevent catalytic converter theft, you can park in a well-lit area, install security cameras or an alarm system, or have your converter welded to the exhaust pipe.

What does the future look like for catalytic converters?

The near future looks bright for catalytic converters. Car companies are continuing to invest in research and development for catalytic converters, and new technologies are being developed that could make catalytic converters even more effective at reducing pollution. For example, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California is working on a new type of catalyst that can more effectively convert NOx emissions into harmless nitrogen gas. This new catalyst could be used in conjunction with existing catalytic converters to further reduce pollution from automobiles.

The long-term outlook for catalytic converters is also positive. As global awareness of the need to reduce pollution continues to grow, the demand for catalytic converters is likely to increase. This could lead to further innovation in the design and technology of catalytic converters, making them even more effective at reducing pollution. In addition, as more countries adopt stricter emissions standards for automobiles, the use of catalytic converters will become increasingly widespread.

Overall, the future looks bright for catalytic converters. With continued research and development, they are likely to become even more effective at reducing pollution from automobiles. This could have a major impact on the quality of the air we breathe and the health of the planet.


YouTube: See-Through Catalytic Converter Video

Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Nemirovsky. The pictures and graphics in the body of the article have been credited right beneath their placement.

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Christopher Isak
Christopher Isakhttps://techacute.com
Hi there and thanks for reading my article! I'm Chris the founder of TechAcute. I write about technology news and share experiences from my life in the enterprise world. Drop by on Twitter and say 'hi' sometime. ;)
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