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How Does A Catalytic Converter Work?

Keeping your car in good condition is essential for keeping you safe—as well as saving you money on potentially costly repairs. With so many parts and aspects to your vehicle, it can be tricky to keep track of exactly which elements can go wrong.

One of the most important parts of your car is the catalytic converter, an ingenious device which helps to reduce the number of dangerous gases it emits and protects the environment. They can, however, be prone to wearing out and malfunctioning, requiring a replacement. Luckily, catalytic converter pricing is relatively competitive, but just how does a catalytic converter work?

What Is A Catalytic Converter?

For car engines to work, they run on either diesel or gasoline, both of which are made from petroleum. This substance is created when the remains of tiny sea creatures naturally decay, heat up, and become squeezed between layers of sea-bed rocks. These creatures are made mostly from hydrocarbons—molecules which are built from hydrogen and carbon atoms—and as a result, the resulting petroleum primarily consists of these materials.

Theoretically, the burning of any hydrocarbon fuel with oxygen should result in the release of energy and nothing else but water and carbon dioxide, making this a clean, harmless practice. In truth, however, gasoline is made up of hundreds of chemicals, which include additives as well as hydrocarbons. The result is that burning these fuels generates air pollution, including gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

In short, a catalytic converter works by converting three harmful compounds found in your car exhaust into harmless compounds which can be safely released into the environment. The three compounds are:

  • Hydrocarbons (found in the form of unburned gasoline) produce smog.
  • Carbon monoxide (formed by the combustion of gasoline) is poisonous for any oxygen-breathing animal.
  • Nitrogen oxides (created when the heat from the engine forces nitrogen into the air, where it combines with the existing oxygen)can lead to smog and dangerous acid rain – both catastrophic for the environment.

A catalytic converter transforms these elements into harmless gases; the carbon monoxide becomes harmless carbon dioxide, the hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water, and the nitrogen oxides back into oxygen and nitrogen.

The catalyst part of the catalytic converter is simply a chemical which can make a chemical reaction go faster without changing itself in the process. Nothing happens to it. It merely encourages other chemicals to go faster.

In a car, the job of the catalyst is to speed up the process of removing pollutants. It is usually made from platinum, or a platinum-like metal, such as rhodium or palladium. The catalytic converter sits on the underside of the vehicle and resembles a large metal box with two pipes. One (the input), connects to the engine. It draws in the hot and polluted fumes which are produced by the engine’s cylinders where the fuel burns and power is produced. The second, the output, connects to the exhaust. As the gases pass through the catalyst, the chemical reactions break the pollutant gases apart, converting them into harmless alternatives which can be passed out from the exhaust. The two main processes are reduction (removing oxygen), which breaks up the nitrogen oxides, and oxidation (adding oxygen), which transforms carbon monoxide into carbon dioxides and breaks up hydrocarbons.

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Written by Nathaniel Fried

Co-founder of Fupping. Busy churning out content and building an empire.

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