Catalytic converter developer honored for car contribution

ByABC News
October 20, 2008, 10:28 PM

GROSSE POINTE SHORES, Mich. -- Early in his career, Dick Klimisch realized he wasn't going to be satisfied working as a chemical engineer figuring out how to make synthetic underpants for 5 cents cheaper.

It was the late 1960s, and then he saw an ad in a trade journal saying General Motors was looking for chemists to work on catalysis.

It was odd. GM generally hired mechanical engineers to build engines and powertrains, not chemists.

Klimisch jumped at the opportunity and soon led a team to develop what is arguably the device most responsible for cleaning vehicle tailpipe emissions: the catalytic converter.

"The catalytic converter has had a profound impact on our environment," says Jim Kliesch, senior engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Advances in the catalytic converter, which rolled out on GM's 1975 model-year cars, and computer-controlled fuel injection technology have all but eliminated tailpipe emissions, he says.

Today, that team of engineers will be honored for the first time for developing the catalytic converter, receiving the Great Moments in Engineering Award from information technology group GlobalSpec at a dinner in Detroit.

"It was the first generation of ecological and green technology relative to the automotive sector," says Jeff Killeen, CEO of GlobalSpec. "The timing of it was rather perfect."

For the technically challenged, the catalytic converter looks like a second muffler but is actually a contraption filled with platinum-coated ceramic beads that chemically clean exhaust before it leaves the car.

And it is nearly perfect: credited with keeping 98% of carbon monoxide emissions, 99% of nitrogen oxide and 99.5% of unburned hydrocarbons from being expelled into the air. With just 1/10 of an ounce of platinum, it forces these emissions to convert into water and carbon dioxide.

It had another surprising upside: It increased fuel economy by 10% to 20%.

Parallel challenges today

Engineers today are racing to meet fuel-economy rules that will raise the required average to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. A phase-in period will push fuel economy on cars from 27.5 mpg today to 35.7 by 2015 and on trucks from 23.5 to 28.5 in the same period.