Environmental Impact of Catalytic Converters

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What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words catalytic converter? Is it a vision of money (we all know by now the cats have significant value)? Yes, selling scrap catalytic converters can lead to a nice payday, but have you thought about the OTHER green associated with cats? When the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, automakers had to abide by new laws put in place– that is that catalytic converters were required on all vehicles come 1975.

How Do Catalytic Converters Work?

To understand how cats contribute to off-put pollutants made by gas vehicles, you first need to grasp how they work. The job of a catalytic converter is to convert harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they ever leave the car’s exhaust. They are designed to reduce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides, the main emissions of a car. 

In a cat, there are two types of catalysts (a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction) at work: a reduction catalyst and an oxidation catalyst, both consisting of ceramic structures coated with a metal catalyst, typically platinum, palladium, and rhodium. Most cars are equipped with three-way cats, referring to the three regulated emissions it helps reduce. Cats do a great job reducing pollution, however, still have their shortcomings. For example, when you start your car cold, the cat does almost nothing to reduce the pollution in your exhaust because it only works in fairly high temperatures. 

Are You Catching Our Drift?

So not only are catalytic converters making you that green in your pocket, but they also contribute to a greener planet. You should feel good about that! Some quick stats for you:

  • By most estimates, catalytic converters fitted inside the exhaust piper of a gas-operated car convert 90% of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides from the engine into less harmful CO2, nitrogen, and water vapor.
  • New passenger vehicles are 98-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s.
  • Fuels are much cleaner – lead has been eliminated and sulfur levels are more than 90% lower than they were prior to regulation.
  • For every $1 spent on programs to reduce emissions, the American people receive $9 of benefits to public health and the environment. Is that not a crazy fact?


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