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A catalytic converter is a vehicle emissions control device that converts toxic pollutants in exhaust gas to less toxic pollutants by catalyzing a redox reaction (oxidation or reduction). Catalytic converters are used with internal combustion engines fueled by either petrol (gasoline) or diesel—including lean-burn engines.

Although catalytic converters are most commonly applied to exhaust systems in automobiles, they are also used on electrical generators, forklifts, mining equipment, trucks, buses, locomotives and motorcycles. They are also used on some wood stoves to control emissions.

The catalytic converter's construction is as follows:

-The catalyst support or substrate.

For automotive catalytic converters, the core is usually a ceramicmonolith with a honeycomb structure. Metallic foil monoliths made of Kanthal (FeCrAl) are used in applications where particularly high heat resistance is required. Either material is designed to provide a large surface area.

-The washcoat.

A washcoat is a carrier for the catalytic materials and is used to disperse the materials over a large surface area. Aluminum oxide, titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide, or a mixture of silica and alumina can be used. The catalytic materials are suspended in the washcoat prior to applying to the core. Washcoat materials are selected to form a rough, irregular surface, which greatly increases the surface area compared to the smooth surface of the bare substrate. This in turn maximizes the catalytically active surface available to react with the engine exhaust. The coat must retain its surface area and preventsintering of the catalytic metal particles even at high temperatures (1000 °C).

-The catalyst itself is most often a mix of precious metals. Platinum is the most active catalyst and is widely used, but is not suitable for all applications because of unwanted additional reactions and high cost. Palladium and rhodium are two other precious metals used. Rhodium is used as a reduction catalyst, palladium is used as an oxidation catalyst, and platinum is used both for reduction and oxidation. Cerium, iron, manganese and nickel are also used, although each has limitations.


Three-way catalytic converters (TWC) have the additional advantage of controlling the emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx), in particular nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas over three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide,a precursor to acid rain and currently the most ozone-depleting substance.

A three-way catalytic converter has three simultaneous tasks:

Reduction of nitrogen oxides to nitrogen and oxygen: 2NOx → xO2 + N2

Oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide: 2CO + O2 → 2CO2

Oxidation of unburnt hydrocarbons (HC) to carbon dioxide and water: CxH2x+2 + [(3x+1)/2]O2 → xCO2 + (x+1)H2O.

These three reactions occur most efficiently when the catalytic converter receives exhaust from an engine running slightly above the stoichiometricpoint. This point is between 14.6 and 14.8 parts air to 1 part fuel, by weight, for gasoline. The ratio for Autogas (or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)), natural gas and ethanol fuels is each slightly different, requiring modified fuel system settings when using those fuels. In general, engines fitted with 3-way catalytic converters are equipped with a computerized closed-loop feedback fuel injection system using one or more oxygen sensors, though early in the deployment of three-way converters, carburetors equipped for feedback mixture control were used.

Three-way catalysts are effective when the engine is operated within a narrow band of air-fuel ratios near stoichiometry, such that the exhaust gas oscillates between rich (excess fuel) and lean (excess oxygen) conditions. However, conversion efficiency falls very rapidly when the engine is operated outside of that band of air-fuel ratios. Under lean engine operation, there is excess oxygen and the reduction of NOx is not favored. Under rich conditions, the excess fuel consumes all of the available oxygen prior to the catalyst, thus only stored oxygen is available for the oxidation function. Closed-loop control systems are necessary because of the conflicting requirements for effective NOx reduction and HC oxidation. The control system must prevent the NOx reduction catalyst from becoming fully oxidized, yet replenish the oxygen storage material to maintain its function as an oxidation catalyst.

Diesel engines 

For compression-ignition (i.e., diesel engines), the most commonly used catalytic converter is the Diesel Oxidation Catalyst (DOC). DOCs containpalladium / platinum with Aluminium oxide which serve as catalysts to oxidise the hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water.

2CO + O2 → 2CO2

CxH2x+2 + [(3x+1)/2] O2 → x CO2 + (x+1) H2O

These catalysts are not active for NOx reduction because any reductant present would react first with the high concentration of O2 in diesel exhaust gas.

There are two techniques that have been developed for the catalytic reduction of NOx emissions under lean exhaust conditions - selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and the lean NOx trap or NOx adsorber. Instead of precious metal-containing NOx adsorbers, most manufacturers selected base-metal SCR systems that use a reagent such as ammonia to reduce the NOx into nitrogen.

Diesel exhaust contains relatively high levels of particulate matter (soot), consisting in large part of elemental carbon. Catalytic converters cannot clean up elemental carbon, though they do remove up to 90 percent of the soluble organic fraction, so particulates are cleaned up by a soot trap or diesel particulate filter (DPF). Contemporary DPFs can be manufactured from a variety of rare metals that provide superior performance (at a greater expense).  As the amount of soot trapped on the DPF increases, so does the back pressure in the exhaust system. Periodic regenerations (high temperature excursions) are required to initiate combustion of the trapped soot and thereby reducing the exhaust back pressure. In the U.S., all on-road light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles powered by diesel and built after 1 January 2007, must meet diesel particulate emission limits that means they effectively have to be equipped with a 2-Way catalytic converter and a diesel particulate filter. Note that this applies only to the diesel engine used in the vehicle. 


Article and pictures are sourced from the internet