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Catalytic converter underneath a car

Catalytic converters

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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 15, 2017.

Blackened buildings and choking streets—if that's your experience when you open the front door in the morning, you probably live in a big city like Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Beijing. Cars, buses, and trucks have been a great gift to the world, because they help us move ourselves (and the things we need) quickly and efficiently. But their engine pollution spoils the places where we live and harms our health. Fortunately, most vehicles are now fitted with pollution-reducing units called catalytic converters (sometimes known as "cats" or "cat-cons"), which turn the harmful chemicals in vehicle exhausts into harmless gases such as steam. Let's take a closer look at these brilliant gadgets and how they work!

Photo: An experimental new catalytic converter is tested underneath a car. Picture courtesy of Southwest Research Institute and US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DoE/NREL).

Why engines make pollution

Exhaust pollution damage on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece

Photo: The columns of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece have been blackened by vehicle pollution. Athens is one of the world's most traffic-polluted cities. Photo by courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.

Car engines run on gasoline or diesel, which are made from petroleum. Most of our petroleum is formed when the remains of tiny sea creatures rot down, heat up, and get squeeze by layers of sea-bed rocks. Petroleum is made up of hydrocarbons (molecules built from carbon and hydrogen atoms) because living organisms are mostly made from those atoms too.

In theory, if you burn any kind of hydrocarbon fuel with oxygen from the air, you release a lot of energy and make nothing but carbon dioxide and water, which are clean and relatively harmless. In practice, though, there may be too little oxygen (or too much) or there may be impurities in the engine or the fuel you're burning. That means you generally get some air pollution as a byproduct. The pollutant gases made by car engines include a poisonous gas called carbon monoxide, as well as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and nitrogen oxides that cause "smog" (the sort of choking, cloudy vehicle pollution we all know and hate).

What is a catalytic converter?

Pollutant gases are made of harmful molecules, but those molecules are made from relatively harmless atoms. So if we could find a way of splitting up the molecules after they leave a car's engine and before they get pumped out into the air, we could crack the problem of pollution. That's the job that a catalytic converter does.

A new catalytic converter being developed by a scientist in a laboratory

Photo: This scientist is working to develop a new type of catalytic converter that can reduce automobile pollution by over 50 percent. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of DoE National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

These gadgets are much simpler than they sound. A catalyst is simply a chemical that makes a chemical reaction go faster without itself changing in the process. It's a bit like an athletics coach who stands by the side of the track and shouts at the runners to go faster. The coach doesn't run anywhere; he just stands there, waves his arms about, and makes the runners speed up. In a catalytic converter, the catalyst's job is to speed up the removal of pollution. The catalyst is made from platinum or a similar, platinum-like metal such as palladium or rhodium.

A catalytic converter is a large metal box, bolted to the underside of your car, that has two pipes coming out of it. One of them (the converter's "input") is connected to the engine and brings in hot, polluted fumes from the engine's cylinders (where the fuel burns and produces power). The second pipe (the converter's "output") is connected to the tailpipe (exhaust). As the gases from the engine fumes blow over the catalyst, chemical reactions take place on its surface, breaking apart the pollutant gases and converting them into other gases that are safe enough to blow harmlessly out into the air.

One very important thing to note about catalytic converters is that they require you to use unleaded fuel, because the lead in conventional fuel "poisons" the catalyst and prevents it from taking up the pollutants in exhaust gases.

What happens inside the converter?

Low-temperature oxidation catalyst produced by NASA in 1995.

Photo: Engineers are constantly trying to improve the performance of catalytic converters, for example, by developing catalysts that work more effectively at lower temperatures. This is an example of a low-temperature oxidation catalyst made from tin oxide and platinum. Photo by CPL Bryant V courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC).

Inside the converter, the gases flow through a dense honeycomb structure made from a ceramic and coated with the catalysts. The honeycomb structure means the gases touch a bigger area of catalyst at once, so they are converted more quickly and efficiently.

Typically, there are two different catalysts in a catalytic converter:

In effect, three different chemical reactions are going on at the same time. That's why we talk about three-way catalytic converters. (Some, less-effective converters carry out only the second two (oxidation) reactions, so they're called two-way catalytic converters.) After the catalyst has done its job, what emerges from the exhaust is mostly nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water (in the form of steam).

How effective are catalytic converters?

Bar chart comparing effectiveness of two- and three-way catalytic converters at reducing emission of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide.

Chart: Effectiveness of catalytic converters. Cats make a big difference to emissions, with three-way converters giving a significant extra benefit over two-way converters. Figures show pollutants in grams per kilometer at 80,000 kilometers. Chart drawn by Explain that Stuff.com using data for light-duty gasoline fueled vehicles from US EPA (1990), quoted in table 3.2 (page 75) of Air Pollution from Motor Vehicles: Standards and Technologies for Controlling Emissions, Faiz et al, World Bank, 1996.

Catalytic converters are mainly designed to reduce immediate, local air pollution—dirty air where you're driving—and this chart certainly seems to suggest that they're effective. Even so, people sometimes question whether they're really as green as they seem.

One problem is that they only really work at high temperatures (over 300°C/600°F or so), when the engine has had chance to warm things up, which might take 10–15 minutes. So they are ineffective for the first part of a journey (or any part of a very short journey).

Another issue is whether they increase greenhouse gas emissions. We think of carbon dioxide as a safe gas, because it's not toxic in everyday concentrations. Nevertheless, it isn't entirely harmless, because we now know it's the major cause of global warming and climate change. Some people believe catalytic converters make climate change worse because they turn carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. In fact, the carbon monoxide your car produces would eventually turn into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere all by itself, so a catalytic converter makes no difference on that score: it simply reduces the carbon monoxide a car pumps into the street as it drives along, improving the local air quality.

But when it comes to climate change, auto engineers and environmentalists have long pointed out another serious issue. Although cats turn most nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen, they also produce small amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O) in the process, a greenhouse gas that's over 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The trouble is that with so many vehicles on the road, even small amounts of nitrous oxide add up to a major problem. Back in 2000, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted: "The introduction of catalytic converters as a pollution control measure in the majority of industrialized countries is resulting in a substantial increase in N2O emissions from gasoline vehicles." Fortunately, newer catalytic converters produce dramatically less nitrous oxide than older ones. Even so, while catalytic converters have certainly helped us to tackle short-term air pollution, there are concerns that, when it comes to long-term climate change, they could be making matters worse.

How a catalytic converter works

Artwork showing the parts inside a catalytic converter

Artwork explaining how catalytic converters strip away pollution molecules

Before catalytic converters were developed, waste gases made by a car engine blew straight down the exhaust tailpipe and into the atmosphere. The catalytic converter sits between the engine and the tailpipe, but it doesn't work like a simple filter: it changes the chemical composition of the exhaust gases by rearranging the atoms from which they're made:

  1. Molecules of polluting gases are pumped from the engine past the honeycomb catalyst, made from platinum, palladium, or rhodium.
  2. The catalyst splits up the molecules into their atoms.
  3. The atoms then recombine into molecules of relatively harmless substances such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water, which blow out safely through the exhaust.

Who invented the catalytic converter?

Whom do we thank for making streets and cities safer and cleaner? French chemical engineer Eugene Houdry (1892–1962) patented what seems to have been the very first catalytic converter in the United States, filing the invention on May 5, 1950 and receiving his (US Patent 2,674,521: Catalytic converter for exhaust gases) four years later on April 6, 1954. Houdry had previously invented catalytic cracking, the industrial process by which the many large complex organic chemicals in petroleum are separated into dozens of useful products, including gasoline. After that, he experimented with making different kinds of vehicle fuels and making them cleaner. Although he recognized the growing problem of air pollution, his ideas were far ahead of their time: catalytic converters were "poisoned" by the lead additives used in gasoline to improve performance. Fortunately, in the 1970s, people started to recognize the dangers of lead, a toxic heavy metal. In 1973, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report demonstrating how lead harmed people's health, which began the slow process for removing lead from gasoline. The first practical catalytic converters appeared shortly afterward, in the mid-1970s, and have been used in cars ever since.

Original 1950 catalytic converter design by Eugene Houdry from US Patent 2,674,521.

Artwork: Eugene Houdry's original catalytic converter from his 1950 patent. It's essentially a set of concentric metal tubes (blue) through which the exhaust gases flow. Clean air is sucked in through ventilation holes (yellow) with the help of a venturi (orange). As in a modern cat, Houdry explains that "the deposited finely divided metal catalyst is preferably platinum," although other similar metals can be used; unlike a modern cat, the catalyst (green) isn't arranged in a honeycomb but mounted in sixteen separate rings (red) at intervals along the tube, with each one working in parallel. Artwork from US Patent 2,674,521: Catalytic converter for exhaust gases, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

Houdry invented the basic oxidation catalyst for tackling carbon monoxide. Improved, three-way catalytic converters, which could also tackle nitrogen oxides, were designed in the early 1970s by Carl Keith (1920–1988), John Mooney (1929–), and chemical engineers at Engelhard Corporation.

Improved 1970s three-way catalytic converter design by Carl Keith and John Mooney from US Patent 3,896,616.

Artwork: In Carl Keith and John Mooney's improved design, there are two separate catalytic converters. Polluted gases flow from the engine (red, 10), and the exhaust manifold (orange, 11), through the first catalyst (green, 13) and then the second (25), some distance away, before exiting through the tailpipe (gray, 26). Artwork from US Patent 3,896,616: Process and Apparatus, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

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Woodford, Chris. (2007/2017) Catalytic converters. Retrieved from http://www.explainthatstuff.com/catalyticconverters.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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