A catalytic converter (colloquially, "cat" or "catcon") is an exhaust emission control device which converts toxic chemicals in the exhaust of an internal combustion engine into less toxic substances. Inside a catalytic converter, a catalyst stimulates a chemical reaction in which toxic byproducts of combustion are converted to less toxic substances by way of catalysed chemical reactions. The specific reactions vary with the type of catalyst installed. Most present-day vehicles that run on gasoline are fitted with a "three way" converter, so named because it converts the three main pollutants in automobile exhaust: an oxidizing reaction converts carbon monoxide (CO) and unburned hydrocarbons (HC), and a reduction reaction converts oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2), and water (H2O).

The first widespread introduction of catalytic converters was in the United States market, where 1975 model year gasoline-powered automobiles were so equipped to comply with tightening U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations on automobile exhaust emissions. These were "two-way" converters which combined carbon monoxide (CO) and unburned hydrocarbons (HC) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O). Two-way catalytic converters of this type are now considered obsolete, having been supplanted except on lean burn engines by "three-way" converters which also reduce oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

Catalytic converters are still most commonly used on automobile exhaust systems, but are also used on generator sets, forklifts, mining equipment, trucks, buses, locomotives, motorcycles, airplanes and other engine fitted devices. They are also used on some wood stoves to control emissions. This is usually in response to government regulation, either through direct environmental regulation or through health and safety regulations.

Catalytic oxidization is also used, but for the purpose of safe, flameless generation of heat rather than destruction of pollutants, in catalytic heaters.


The catalytic converter was invented by Eugene Houdry, a French mechanical engineer and expert in catalytic oil refining who lived in the U.S. around 1950. When the results of early studies of smog in Los Angeles were published, Houdry became concerned about the role of smoke stack exhaust and automobile exhaust in air pollution and founded a company, Oxy-Catalyst. Houdry first developed catalytic converters for smoke stacks called cats for short. Then he started research in the mid 1950s to develop catalytic converters for gasoline engines. He was awarded United States Patent 2742437 for his work.

Widespread adoption of catalytic converters didn't occur until more stringent emission control regulations forced the removal of anti-knock agent tetraethyl lead from most gasoline, because lead was a 'catalyst poison' and would inactivate the converter by forming a coating on the catalyst's surface, effectively disabling it.

Catalytic converters were further developed by a series of engineers including John J. Mooney and Carl D. Keith at the Engelhard Corporation, creating the first production catalytic converter in 1973.


The catalytic converter consists of several components:

  1. The catalyst core, or substrate. For automotive catalytic converters, the core is usually a ceramic monolith with a honeycomb structure. Metallic foil monoliths made of FeCrAl are used in some applications. This is partially a cost issue. Ceramic cores are inexpensive when manufactured in large quantities. Metallic cores are less expensive to build in small production runs. Either material is designed to provide a high surface area to support the catalyst washcoat, and therefore is often called a "catalyst support". The cordierite ceramic substrate used in most catalytic converters was invented by Rodney Bagley, Irwin Lachman and Ronald Lewis at Corning Glass, for which they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.
  2. The washcoat. A washcoat is a carrier for the catalytic materials and is used to disperse the materials over a high 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.
  3. The catalyst itself is most often a precious metal. 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 its own limitations. Nickel is not legal for use in the European Union (because of its reaction with carbon monoxide into nickel tetracarbonyl). Copper can be used everywhere except North America, where its use is illegal because of the formation of dioxin.



A two-way (or "oxidation") catalytic converter has two simultaneous tasks:

  1. Oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide: 2CO + O2 → 2CO2
  2. Oxidation of hydrocarbons (unburnt and partially burnt fuel) to carbon dioxide and water: CxH2x+2 + [(3x+1)/2] O2 → xCO2 + (x+1) H2O (a combustion reaction)

This type of catalytic converter is widely used on diesel engines to reduce hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions. They were also used on gasoline engines in American- and Canadian-market automobiles until 1981. Because of their inability to control oxides of nitrogen, they were superseded by three-way converters.


Since 1981, "three-way" (oxidation-reduction) catalytic converters have been used in vehicle emission control systems in the United States and Canada; many other countries have also adopted stringent vehicle emission regulations that in effect require three-way converters on gasoline-powered vehicles. The reduction and oxidation catalysts are typically contained in a common housing, however in some instances they may be housed separately. 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: 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 stoichiometric point. 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.

Oxygen storage

Three-way catalytic converters can store oxygen from the exhaust gas stream, usually when the air-fuel ratio goes lean. When insufficient oxygen is available from the exhaust stream, the stored oxygen is released and consumed (see cerium(IV) oxide). A lack of sufficient oxygen occurs either when oxygen derived from NOx reduction is unavailable or when certain maneuvers such as hard acceleration enrich the mixture beyond the ability of the converter to supply oxygen.

Unwanted reactions

Unwanted reactions can occur in the three-way catalyst, such as the formation of odoriferous hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Formation of each can be limited by modifications to the washcoat and precious metals used. It is difficult to eliminate these byproducts entirely. Sulfur-free or low-sulfur fuels eliminate or reduce hydrogen sulfide.

For example, when control of hydrogen-sulfide emissions is desired, nickel or manganese is added to the washcoat. Both substances act to block the absorption of sulfur by the washcoat. Hydrogen sulfide is formed when the washcoat has absorbed sulfur during a low-temperature part of the operating cycle, which is then released during the high-temperature part of the cycle and the sulfur combines with HC.

For diesel engines

For compression-ignition (i.e., diesel engines), the most commonly used catalytic converter is the Diesel Oxidation Catalyst (DOC). This catalyst uses O2 (oxygen) in the exhaust gas stream to convert CO (carbon monoxide) to CO2 (carbon dioxide) and HC (hydrocarbons) to H2O (water) and CO2. These converters often operate at 90 percent efficiency, virtually eliminating diesel odor and helping to reduce visible particulates (soot). 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.

Reduction in NOx emissions from compression-ignition engines has previously been addressed by the addition of exhaust gas to incoming air charge, known as exhaust gas recirculation (EGR). In 2010, most light-duty diesel manufacturers in the U.S. added catalytic systems to their vehicles to meet new federal emissions requirements. 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. Ammonia is supplied to the catalyst system by the injection of urea into the exhaust, which then undergoes thermal decomposition and hydrolysis into ammonia. One trademark product of urea solution, also referred to as Diesel Emission Fluid (DEF), is AdBlue.

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). A DPF consists of a Cordierite or Silicon Carbide substrate with a geometry that forces the exhaust flow through the substrate walls, leaving behind trapped soot particles. 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. The amount of soot loaded on the DPF prior to regeneration may also be limited to prevent extreme exotherms from damaging the trap during regeneration. In the U.S., all on-road light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles powered by diesel and built after January 1, 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. As long as the engine was manufactured before January 1, 2007, the vehicle is not required to have the DPF system. This led to an inventory runup by engine manufacturers in late 2006 so they could continue selling pre-DPF vehicles well into 2007.

Lean Burn Spark Ignition Engines

For Lean Burn spark-ignition engines, an oxidation catalyst is used in the same manner as in a diesel engine. Emissions from Lean Burn Spark Ignition Engines are very similar to emissions from a Diesel Compression Ignition engine.


Many vehicles have a close-coupled catalysts located near the engine's exhaust manifold. This unit heats up quickly due to its proximity to the engine, and reduces cold-engine emissions by burning off hydrocarbons from the extra-rich mixture used to start a cold engine.

Air injection

When catalytic converters were first introduced, most vehicles used carburetors that provided a relatively rich air-fuel ratio. Oxygen (O2) levels in the exhaust stream were generally insufficient for the catalytic reaction to occur efficiently, so most installations included secondary air injection which injected air into the exhaust stream to increase the available oxygen and allow the catalyst to function. Some three-way catalytic converter systems have air injection systems with the air injected between the first (NOx reduction) and second (HC and CO oxidation) stages of the converter. As in the two-way converters, this injected air provides oxygen for the oxidation reactions. An upstream air injection point, ahead of the catalytic converter, is also sometimes present to provide oxygen during engine warmup, which causes unburned fuel to ignite in the exhaust tract before reaching the catalytic converter. This reduces the engine runtime needed for the catalytic converter to reach its "light-off" or operating temperature.

Many modern vehicles do not have air injection systems. Instead, they provide a constantly varying air-fuel mixture that quickly and continually cycles between lean and rich exhaust. Oxygen sensors are used to monitor the exhaust oxygen content before and after the catalytic converter and this information is used by the Electronic control unit to adjust the fuel injection so as to prevent the first (NOx reduction) catalyst from becoming oxygen-loaded while ensuring the second (HC and CO oxidization) catalyst is sufficiently oxygen-saturated.



Catalyst poisoning occurs when the catalytic converter is exposed to exhaust containing substances that coat the working surfaces, encapsulating the catalyst so that it cannot contact and treat the exhaust. The most-notable contaminant is lead, so vehicles equipped with catalytic converters can be run only on unleaded fuels. Other common catalyst poisons include fuel sulfur, manganese (originating primarily from the gasoline additive MMT), and silicone, which can enter the exhaust stream if the engine has a leak that allows coolant into the combustion chamber. Phosphorus is another catalyst contaminant. Although phosphorus is no longer used in gasoline, it (and zinc, another low-level catalyst contaminant) was until recently widely used in engine oil antiwear additives such as zinc dithiophosphate (ZDDP). Beginning in 2006, a rapid phaseout of ZDDP in engine oils began.{{Citation needed|date=November 2010}

Depending on the contaminant, catalyst poisoning can sometimes be reversed by running the engine under a very heavy load for an extended period of time. The increased exhaust temperature can sometimes liquefy or sublimate the contaminant, removing it from the catalytic surface. However, removal of lead deposits in this manner is usually not possible because of lead's high boiling point.


Any condition that causes abnormally high levels of unburned hydrocarbons — raw or partially burnt fuel — to reach the converter will tend to significantly elevate its temperature, bringing the risk of a meltdown of the substrate and resultant catalytic deactivation and severe exhaust restriction. Vehicles equipped with OBD-II diagnostic systems are designed to alert the driver to a misfire condition by means of flashing the "check engine" light on the dashboard.