How does a catalytic converter help emissions in a car?

How does a catalytic converter help emissions in a car? — JAM, Littleton, Colorado

While the burned gases that emerge from an ideal car engine would consist only of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gas, a real car engine is far from ideal. In addition to these gases, a real engine emits nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and various unburned hydrocarbons left over from the gasoline. Because these gases are major contributors to urban smog, car manufacturers have been forced to reduce them in various ways.

One of the most effective tools for eliminating the unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide is a catalytic converter. It is essentially a pipe containing a ceramic honeycomb on which there are countless tiny particles of platinum and palladium. As the unwanted molecules pass through the honeycomb, they land on the metal particles briefly and are combined with oxygen atoms to form water vapor and carbon dioxide. The catalytic converter is burning these molecules in a controlled way, with the precious metal particles acting as catalysts to assist the burning process.

Like all catalysts, these particles are not consumed in the process of burning the gases, but they can easily be contaminated. That’s why it’s so important not to put leaded gasoline in a car with a catalytic converter—one tank of leaded gas is all it takes to lead-coat the tiny platinum and palladium particles and to render them useless. Another interesting note is that the catalytic converter is usually located on the underside of the car, protected only by a thin metal shield. The converter becomes very hot in operation, both because hot exhaust gas is passing through it and because the controlled combustion taking place inside it heats it up. Don’t park a car with a catalytic converter over a pile of leaves! Many an autumn car fire has started when a hot catalytic converter ignited the pile of leaves beneath it.

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