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Precious Car Part: What Makes Catalytic Converter Valuable to Thieves?

One of the technologies that made a negative impact on our environment is the gasoline-powered automobile engine. Pollution from cars is considered one of the major contributors to global warming. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, car emissions currently contribute as much as 1/5th of all US emissions.

The increase in the use of private vehicles since the 1900s led to the increase in air pollution especially in urban areas and this trend continues today. This is why officials started regulating emissions in the mid-1900s, starting from the United States’ Clean Air Act of 1963. During this time, the use of catalytic converters became more common than ever.

Brief History

The initial prototypes of the catalytic converter were first developed in France. It was made up of a chemically inactive material inside a double metallic cylinder and layered with palladium or platinum.

A decade after, it was patented by the French mechanical engineer and catalytic oil refining expert, Eugene Houdry. He then eventually founded the company Oxy-Catalyst after discovering the grim results of the studies regarding smog in Los Angeles.

He further researched and developed catalytic converters for warehouse forklifts (that use unleaded gasoline) and then eventually for car gasoline engines. Further improvements and developments were made with the help of other engineers, leading up to its present design.

The use of catalytic converters became prevalent when emissions started being regulated in the mid-1900s. Converters are still widely used at the present and are considered an important part of vehicles.

How Does It Work?

The catalytic converter is made up of a metal honeycomb housing; usually composed of platinum, palladium, or rhodium, and contains two pipes with separate functions. Its interior is layered with ceramic insulation where chemical reactions take place.

One of the pipes, also called the converter’s input, is directly connected to the engine. This is where the hot and harmful fumes coming from the cylinders pass through. While the other pipe, also known as the converter’s output, is connected to the car’s exhaust.

Polluted fumes undergo a chemical reaction when it passes through the catalyst. These fumes are converted into harmless chemicals by undergoing the processes of oxidation and reduction, and the precious materials in the catalyst are the key to these chemical reactions. These materials allow for the transfer of the electrons (breaking down of the chemicals) and thus, the conversion of the harmful fumes into harmless chemicals.

During reduction, the nitrogen oxides are broken down into nitrogen and oxygen. On the other hand, oxidation converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and breaks down hydrocarbons into water and carbon dioxide. These functions happen simultaneously and the elements are recombined into harmless chemicals as they exit the exhaust.

According to the International Platinum Group Metals Association (IPA), catalytic converters used in gasoline-operated cars reduce up to 90% of harmful fumes (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons) by converting them to harmless chemicals (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water). This is an extremely significant amount of pollutants being removed, thanks to this technology.

Catalytic converters can only be used with unleaded fuel. The lead content of regular fuel may cover the interior layers of the catalyst preventing it from undergoing the needed chemical reaction. The function and efficiency of a catalytic converter also depend on its type.

Three Types of Catalytic Converters

The two-way catalytic converter can perform the two oxidation processes simultaneously, hence, “two-way”. It allows for the oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and oxidation of hydrocarbons into water and carbon dioxide.

Two-way converters are commonly used for minimizing carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions from diesel engines. Although very useful, this type of converter is now succeeded by three-way converters which can perform more functions.

In contrast to the two-way converter, the three-way oxidation-reduction catalytic converter can perform three simultaneous tasks. Aside from the two oxidation processes (oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and oxidation of hydrocarbons into water and carbon dioxide), it also allows for the reduction of nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen. These processes usually occur inside the same housing, although some designs have them separated.

Three-way catalytic converters also store oxygen coming from the exhaust gas stream. The oxygen is released and used when there is a lack of oxygen required for sufficient chemical reactions to take place.

Materials used for a three-way converter may vary depending on necessity. Some byproducts such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide may form from the catalyst due to unnecessary chemical reactions. Alterations are sometimes made to the catalyst container and materials to avoid these unnecessary byproducts.

The diesel oxidation catalyst is more commonly used for compression-ignition. It utilizes oxygen from the exhaust gas stream which enables two oxidation processes. This type of converter is best used for eliminating odoriferous diesel smoke and reducing soot (mass of carbon particles from unprocessed hydrocarbons) while performing at 90% efficiency.

Why Do Thieves Want Them?

Catalytic converters have greatly contributed to the reduction of air pollution since its invention. But more than its value for the environment, it also has a high market value.

The materials used for converters are valued highly and can be sold at a considerable price to scrap yards. This is why they are commonly targeted by thieves. There have been 3,986 casesof converter theft in just 2015 and taking the biggest hit is the state of California.

Thieves can sell them for high prices depending on the kind of metal and amount used in the converter. The average price for Platinum is$986 per ounce, $620 per ounce for Palladium, and $800 per ounce for Rhodium; although these metals sometimes change in value. Thieves usually sell stolen converters to metal recyclers who pay at least $50 and up to $250 each depending on the amount of precious metals inside.

Replacing your car’s converter may cost up to $2,00,according to online sources, plus labor cost of up to $120. The cost also depends on various factors such as the brand and model of the car, and the type of converter used. Nonetheless, the cost of replacing one is high, and being a victim of converter theft is a real nuisance.

Aside from the high selling price, thieves also target car converters because they are relatively easy to steal. They are easy targets because they can be easily removed by just cutting off its ends. Removing one can be done within just 5 minutes for some car models, making it an easy source of money for thieves.

Converter theft is a very annoying problem, especially considering not only the expenses of replacement but also the time and energy consumed. You will be inconvenienced while also having to pay a large amount of money.

Tips on Preventing Your Car’s Catalytic Converter from Being Stolen

Now you know how much thieves want your catalytic converter and how costly and inconvenient it can be, you should start taking preventive measures to avoid having your car’s converter stolen.

The first safety precaution you can take is when at home. Most of the time, home is the place where your car is parked the longest and it is also most vulnerable when you are asleep. Park your car inside a secured garage to ensure it is safe and out of reach of thieves.

If you have to park your car outside especially if you intend to do so for a long time, it is better to park it near an open establishment or under street lights (this is assuming there are no available parking establishments which are safer due to the presence of security guards). This way, thieves will hesitate to target your car and are at higher risk of being caught in the act.

Another way to catch thieves on the act is by installing a vehicle motion alarm system. This notifies not only you but also the people around your car and even nearby authorities. Thieves will probably bolt away the moment they hear your car’s alarm go off.

You can also etch your car’s plate number to its converter to be able to keep track of it when it gets stolen. Although this seems to be more of a reactive rather than a preventive measure, it may still come in handy in certain situations.

You can have extra metal welded to your catalytic converter. This makes it way harder for thieves to cut off the converter from your car. They will most likely be discouraged when they realize your converter is welded with extra metal to your car since it will take them significantly more time and therefore, are at higher risk of being caught.

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