In a time when alternatives like hydrogen and electric power are at the forefront of any clean technology discussion, the catalytic converter almost seems like ancient history. But since being introduced in 1975, no other component has come close to matching this elegantly functional device when it comes to putting a greener face on autodom. In recognition of that accomplishment, GlobalSpec, leading information technology group for the engineering community, has honored the entire R&D team from General Motors for its prime role in developing the catalytic converter with its 2008 "Great Moments in Engineering Technology" award. GlobalSpec CEO Jeffery Killeen (center in the photo at left) made the presentation to Richard Klimisch, lead catalysis expert during the original efforts and Alan Taub, current Executive Director of GM Research and Development.
Jointly perfected by a team of scientists from GM and its AC Delco subsidiary group, a catalytic converter functions by having exhaust gases pass over an internal structure that's been coated with miniscule amounts of precious metals -- platinum, rhodium or palladium. These, in turn, create a form of chemical reaction -- or catalysis -- that does a stunningly effective job of reducing the carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon particulates and oxides of nitrogen levels before they can exit the tailpipe. We're talking reductions on the order of 98.0-99.5 percent and above here, with the end product largely converted to harmless carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor.
Timed to arrive with America's mandated changeover from leaded to unleaded gasoline, the catalytic converter has undergone several key enhancements during the past 35 years to further enhance its overall effectiveness -- and to help increase fuel efficiency in the process. Primarily intended to clean up the exhaust of gasoline engines, specially modified versions also are used on the current crop of ultra-clean 50-state diesels. While it may not be the highest-profile component, as long as cars and trucks burn any kind of petroleum-based fuel, the catalytic converter is destined to remain a critical part of the downstream clean-up equation.