You rarely hear of catalytic converters unless people are talking about their theft. Still, there’s a lot you should know about these devices and their functions in gas-powered vehicles. First on the list of things you should know is whether all cars come with catalytic converters.
Not all cars come with catalytic converters. Only gas-powered vehicles built after the 1970s have catalytic converters that convert toxic emissions into less-harmful gasses. You’ll also find them in hybrid cars but not in fully-electric ones.
In the next segment of this article, I’ll explain what catalytic converters are and their build. I’ll also take you through their functions to help you understand why you won’t find them in fully electric vehicles.
Air quality deteriorated significantly in the 1940s and ‘50s, demanding an immediate solution. One major cause of this deterioration was low-level ozone and photochemical smog from cars.
To combat this problem, automakers in California began fitting catalytic converters in cars in the mid-1970s to reduce the amount of pollutants vehicles released into the environment. But what are they?
Catalytic converters are exhaust emission devices that reduce the toxicity of pollutants in exhaust gasses of internal combustion engines (ICEs). They are used with ICEs powered by diesel, gas, lead-burn engines, and sometimes in kerosene stoves.
Catalytic converters have become popular in modern cars, but not all vehicles have catalytic converters.
Fully electric cars like Teslas don’t have gas or diesel-powered engines, so they don’t emit exhaust fumes. Therefore, there is no need for gas conversion by a catalytic converter.
Electric vehicles use batteries to power up electric motors that provide the propulsion necessary to move the vehicles. Gas and diesel-powered cars rely on internal combustion engines instead.
The most critical issue with internal combustion engines is the incomplete combustion of fuel. Ordinarily, complete fuel combustion should yield water and carbon dioxide as by-products. But insufficient combustion yields nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas), water, carbon, and the unburned fuels exiting the exhaust as a hydrocarbon.
A catalytic converter operates under two processes:
- A reduction reaction targeting nitrogen oxide to break it up into oxygen and nitrogen 一 both are non-toxic.
- An oxidation reaction (i.e., adding oxygen) targeting carbon monoxide to oxidize it into its less toxic form: carbon dioxide.
The second reaction also splits the unburned hydrocarbon into carbon dioxide and water. Eventually, the converter turns all the harmful gasses into less harmful ones.
You may ask if carbon dioxide is harmful. Carbon dioxide is toxic but not poisonous 一 carbon monoxide is both. Carbon dioxide is responsible for about 64% of artificial global warming, so it’s harmful.
So why don’t catalytic converters break carbon dioxide into less harmful compounds?
When catalytic converters were conceptualized in the 70s, global warming was a less significant concern. They fulfill what they were built to do. As for carbon dioxide in automobile emissions, a sustainable solution is needed.
A catalytic converter is attached to your car’s exhaust between the exhaust manifold 一 where the engine gathers the exhaust gasses before sending them to the tailpipe 一 and the exhaust tip, where the gasses exit the exhaust pipe.
You’ll find a catalytic converter on the underside of your car as part of the exhaust system.
Watch this YouTube video to get a better idea of where a catalytic converter is located in a car.
You might wonder if your car has more than one catalytic converter.
Cars with dual exhaust pipes will most likely come with two converters. Remember that a catalytic converter comes with an exhaust pipe. Sometimes, the extra exhaust pipes are functionless, so they might not have catalytic converters.
Emission regulation may also mandate cars to have more than one catalytic converter. Therefore, the car engine emissions will go through the oxidation-reduction process twice to further improve emission quality.
The catalytic component of catalytic converters is platinum, together with rhodium and palladium. The three are scarce platinum group metals (PGMs) and highly sought after in the spent catalytic converter recovery industry. That’s why you hear stories of catalytic converters theft.
In 2010, the value of platinum group metals recovered from spent converters stood at $3 billion. Platinum is used to make electrical contacts and electrodes, dental equipment, and jewelry. Palladium is helpful in fuel cell technology, while rhodium finds numerous applications in making nitric acid and hydrogenation reactions.
With such vast applications and short supply, their recovery from spent catalytic converters becomes lucrative, with some people turning to obtaining them illegally for cars 一 in short, stealing.
You guessed it right. Like most other car parts, catalytic converters will deteriorate with time and need replacing.
Catalytic converters last more than ten years, but they often get clogged with engine particulate emissions. They can also get overheated or physically damaged when you hit rocks on the underside of your car. When this happens, you’ll notice your engine becoming sluggish and sometimes shutting down after ignition.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common problems affecting catalytic converters.
Although rare in the US and most countries enforcing the ban on leaded gasoline, lead gas contamination can destroy catalytic converters. This was mainly a problem before 1996 when leaded gasoline was still readily available.
Engine oil or engine coolant leaking into the combustion compartment through a leaky head gasket could also become a potential contaminant. These contaminants clog up the converter, restricting the engine exhaust gasses from passing through.
The back pressure created in the catalytic converters flows back to the engine, leaving less room for the oxygen needed to keep the engine running. Therefore, the engine begins to run sluggishly and might flame out after a while.
Catalytic converters are prone to overheating caused by excess unburned gasses leaking through the exhaust valve or a faulty spark plug. A car’s faulty oxygen sensor might also cause the catalytic converter to overheat.
As for physical damage, it occurs because most vehicles’ catalytic converters are located on the underside. That exposes them to physical damage when hitting rocks on the road or running over a curb.
These are the symptoms of a failing catalytic converter:
- Low engine performance
- The smell of rotten eggs or sulfur from the tailpipe
- Dark emissions
- Undue heat on the car’s underside
- Reduced acceleration
Some of these symptoms may be caused by problems with other parts of the exhaust system, so it’s essential to have a mechanic perform a complete diagnosis to uncover the problem.
Keeping your combustion, exhaust, and emissions systems in pristine conditions will reduce the probability of your catalytic converter failing prematurely.
Don’t ignore when your engine light comes on. Issues with your catalytic converter will make the engine light come up. It could be a sign of a clogged fuel or air filter, and not replacing either on time can cost up to $1000 in catalytic converter replacement.
You can drive a car without a catalytic converter. You’ll not harm the engine in any way. Cars before the 1970s were doing fine without catalytic converters. However, you should know it’s illegal to drive without this car part in most states; you risk thousands of dollars in fines.
Removing a catalytic converter from your car is illegal, and no mechanic would freely do it. But what is the overall effect of removing a catalytic converter from a vehicle?
Your car’s engine will generate more horsepower, emit exhaust gasses loudly, and reduce engine temperature when you remove a catalytic converter from your car. The OBD 2 catalyst monitor will trigger your check engine light, and your car will release harmful gasses into the environment.
A catalytic converter works the same as a muffler: reducing the impact of engine emissions. Therefore, they silence your car’s exhaust making it operate smoothly and silently. So if you remove the catalytic converter, you’ll notice your vehicle emitting exhaust gasses loudly.
Some vehicle models experience an increase in engine power when you remove the catalytic converter. The unit is more of a constriction where the engine forces its exhaust gasses to pass through, creating backpressure. Without the catalytic converter, these gasses exit the engine with increased speed creating more room for oxygen. Therefore, you may experience the engine generating more horsepower.
The effect is the same when a portion of your exhaust system breaks, so inspecting the system when experiencing any of these signs is essential.
Catalytic converters are essential devices in cars. They convert the harmful gasses in the exhaust fumes into less toxic compounds. And since fully electric cars don’t have internal combustion engines, you won’t find catalytic converters in them.
Driving a car without a catalytic converter is illegal in the US and most countries worldwide. So, it would help if you endeavored to take care of it. It will cost you thousands of dollars in premature replacement costs or fines.