What Are Catalytic Converters, How They Work, and Why Are They Stolen So Often?
Wed Aug 10 2022
Many people are unaware of what the catalytic converters on their cars do. Don't panic if you are one of them. The catalytic converter is not a new piece of technology; it is the part of your vehicle that cleans the dangerous gasses that your car produces when it runs. Thieves are always looking for the opportunity to steal this part out of your vehicle, because believe it or not, it contains valuable rare earth metals.
Don't worry if you don’t know much about catalytic converters; this article will introduce you to catalytic converters and their mechanism of action and guide you on what you can do to better protect your catalytic converter from theft.
Introduction to Catalytic Converters:
A catalytic converter is a part of your car located within your car's exhaust. It processes the gasses that the car produces and converts them into less dangerous gasses before they are emitted from the car and released into the environment. It is an essential component that keeps the environment and air clean for all of us to breathe. Now it’s not a miracle component,it doesn't completely clean the exhaust or make the exhaust gasses good for the environment, but it does convert them into less hazardous gasses through a series of chemical reactions. Around 1970 air pollution from cars started increasing rapidly with the ever growing number of cars on the road, and engineers had no choice but to develop a solution to make exhaust gasses not as volatile.
Catalytic converters can exist in a variety of different configurations throughout a car’s exhaust system.The size of catalytic converters is variable, but they are small and are located between the muffler and engine. Catalytic converters or cats for short, function when heated; its location, I.e., near the engine, helps it obtain the required heat for the appropriate chemical reactions to take place. Upon starting a car, most cars will idle at a higher RPM in order to heat the cats faster. A lot of modern cars feature more than one catalytic converter to make their function more effective.
History of Catalytic Converters:
In the 19th century, French automakers started installing metal cylinders with Platinum, Palladium, and Rhodium to clean their cars exhaust gasses. Frenchman Eugene Houdry developed this technique further and founded a company, "Oxy-catalyst," when he moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s. His company aimed to reduce air pollution by fitting catalytic converters in the chimneys of industrial plants. Now, most vehicles on the road today utilize catalytic converters, but all of them potentially wouldn't exist if it was not for the environment-benefitting effort of Eugene Houdry.
Types of Catalytic Converters:
Catalytic converters come in different types, each serving the environment differently. The most basic "two-way" oxidation catalytic converters convert Carbon Monoxide (CO) to Carbon Dioxide. This two-way oxidation converter also converts the unburnt particles of fuel, I.e., hydrocarbons, into CO2 and Water.
As more research and development was completed, we advanced to "three-way" catalytic converters. They offer benefits similar to that of a two-way catalytic converter; however, they also provide the additional ability to filter nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide.
How do Catalytic Converters Work?
You may wonder how catalytic converters work, it seems like witchcraft, passing hot exhaust fumes over rare earth metals and suddenly you are more eco-friendly.They worked so well that laws now strictly regulate the amount of pollutant exhaust fumes that each vehicle can produce. This is really important for densely populated areas. Imagine thousands of straight-piped cars passing through a major city every hour and how many pollutants would be let into the atmosphere. You probably wouldn’t want to live next to the major interstates due to the fumes, among the other reasons.Thanks to the adoption of catalytic converters, it would be bearable if you could get past all of the road noise.
Modern cars keep a close eye on burning fuel in the combustion reaction to reduce extraneous gasses from being emitted from the car; they do so by keeping the air-to-fuel ratio at an ideal level. Remember that this ratio is different depending on a multitude of factors, including the type of fuel. The catalytic converter then takes over once the air-to-fuel ratio is optimal.
A Catalyst is a substance that expedites or facilitates a process and stays intact throughout the process. Catalytic converters feature two different catalysts: an oxidation catalyst and a reduction catalyst. Both of these catalysts consist of a piece of ceramic, layered with platinum, rhodium, or palladium. These raw materials are extremely expensive, so engineering the catalytic converter in a way that increases the used surface area, increases the overall efficiency and reduces the amount of the catalyst consumed. It may surprise you that some catalytic converters now consist of gold along with the other metals as it further reduces pollution by up to 40 percent.
Reduction catalysts perform the first step in the process by reducing the emission of nitrogen gasses. The second step requires an oxidation catalyst that converts carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water. Thirdly, the oxygen sensor detects the amount of oxygen in the engine and feeds the information into the car’s ECU to adjust the air to fuel ratio inorder to achieve maximum efficiency.
One the downsides of catalytic converters is that they require heat to work. Heat of course comes from the engine, so these converters aren't functional when you initially start the car as the engine is cold and has not heated the cats to the operating temperature. The closer in proximity the converter is to the engine, the sooner it becomes functional because it’s able to absorb heat faster. Some people use electrical resistance heaters to preheat the catalytic converters so that they work optimally upon cranking the engine.
Why do Catalytic Converters get Stolen?
Unfortunately, catalytic converters are stolen extremely frequently because the metals used in the construction of the cats are quite expensive. Yes, the price of rhodium, palladium, and platinum have drastically increased in recent years, and thieves target them to make substantial money by selling them for their rare earth metal scrap. Platinum that was once $530 per ounce is now around $1000 per ounce. The cost of palladium has quadrupled in the last two decades. If you thought that was a lot, wait for palladium! It has jumped from $350 to a whopping $2200 in twenty years.
This price hike of rare earth metals has ultimately affected the cost of the catalytic converters and the vehicles that feature them. That's exactly what attracts the thieves that target catalytic converts. Thieves are now greatly enticed to cut off your car’s catalytic converters from under your street or garage parked car.
How do I prevent my car's catalytic converter from being stolen?
To many people, a car is a person's prized possession, to many people it’s one of the largest purchases they’ll ever make, and to the people who drive beaters, you probably don’t want a straight piped Mitsubishi Eclipse. Here are a few ways to better protect your catalytic converters from theft:
- Get your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number) engraved on the catalytic converters.
- Painting your catalytic converter a fluorescent color such as bright red, yellow, or green.
- Park your car close to a wall or boundary; In order to steal your cats, they have to jack your car up to get under it. If you leave them no room to get under your car, it will possibly deter the thieves.
- Ensure your car is parked in well-lit areas if it's parked in a public place.
- Park in front of cameras if you have the option.
- Park your car in heavily foot trafficked areas. The more people around, the more bold the thief will have to be.
- Park your car in access controlled areas like gated lots, secured parking decks, or your garage.
- Install an anti-theft device. You can outfit your catalytic converters with extra steel shields, metal cages, or steel cables to deter thieves.
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