catalytic converter

A catalytic converter automobiles in the (colloquially, 'cat' or 'catcon') is a device used to reduce the toxicity of emissions from an internal combustion engine. First widely introduced on series-productionUS market for the 1975 model year to comply with tightening EPA regulations on auto exhaust, catalytic converters are still most commonly used in motor vehicle exhaust systems. Catalytic converters are also used on generator sets, forklifts, mining equipment, trucks, buses, trains, and other engine-equipped machines. A catalytic converter provides an environment for a chemical reaction wherein toxic combustion byproducts are converted to less-toxic gases. The catalytic converter was invented at Trinity College (Connecticut).

Three-way catalytic converters

A three-way catalytic converter has three simultaneous tasks:

  1. Reduction of nitrogen oxides to nitrogen and oxygen: 2NOx → xO2 + N2
  2. Oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide: 2CO + O2 → 2CO2
  3. Oxidation of unburnt hydrocarbons (HC) to carbon dioxide and water: 2CxHy + (2x+y/2)O2 → 2xCO2 + yH2O

These three reactions occur most efficiently when the catalytic converter receives exhaust from an engine running slightly above the stoichiometric point. This is between 14.8 and 14.9 parts air to 1 part fuel, by weight, for gasoline (the ratio for LPG, natural gas and ethanol fuels is slightly different, requiring modified fuel system settings when using those fuels). When there is more oxygen than required, then the system is said to be running lean, and the system is in oxidizing condition. In that case, the converter's two oxidizing reactions (oxidation of CO and hydrocarbons) are favoured, at the expense of the reducing reaction. When there is excessive fuel, then the engine is running rich. The reduction of NOx is favoured, at the expense of CO and HC oxidation. If an engine could be operated with infinitesimally small oscillationsn about the stoichiometric point for the fuel used, it is theoretically possible to reach 100% conversion efficiencies.

Since 1981, three-way catalytic converters have been at the heart of vehicle emission control systems in North American roadgoing vehicles, and have been used on "large spark ignition" (LSI) engines since 2001 in California, and from 2004 in the other 49 states LSI engines are used in forklifts, aerial boom lifts, ice resurfacing machines and construction equipment. The converters used in those types of machines are three-way types, and are designed to reduce combined NOx+HC emissions from 12 gram/BHP-hour to 3 gram/BHP-hour or less, as mandated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2004 regulations A further drop to 2 gram/BHP-hour of NOx+HC emissions is mandated in 2007note: NOx is the industry standard short form for nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) both of which are smog precursors. HC is the industry short form for hydrocarbons). The EPA intends to introduce emissions rules for stationary spark ignition engines, to take effect in January 2008.