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.
In the early 1970s, the auto industry faced similar pressures. The 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act called for a dramatic cut in many pollutants spewing from car tailpipes. Smog had grown from a Los Angeles problem to a national concern. Also, the government had only recently begun regulating emission of lead into the air.
Engineers were struggling to meet the new standards. Many attempted to tweak the engine performance, hoping that would lower emissions. Often, it just resulted in more problems.
"Today, engineers are facing similar challenges, except rather than addressing how to deal with (tailpipe emissions), they are asking how can they cut down on the amount of greenhouse gases a vehicle puts out," Kliesch says. "It may seem like an overwhelming challenge."
It was late GM president Edward Cole who came across research that showed chemical catalysis — using one chemical to speed up a reaction of other chemicals — could help burn off the excess gasoline that made its way out of the tailpipe and caused most pollution concerns. He hired Klimisch and others to work on a catalytic device for GM.
Klimisch downplays his role as leader of the team, saying it was Cole who had the foresight to look at alternative solutions. "I was just the first person in GM who knew how to spell catalysis," he says.
One problem: At that time, the industry used leaded gas to improve the power of its engines. GM discovered that lead coated the insides of the catalytic converter, making it useless.
So in 1971, in front of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Cole boldly declared GM would no longer use leaded gasoline.
As the auto industry today tries to move away from gasoline to alternatives such as ethanol or hydrogen, they are struggling to get oil companies on board to help.
But in those days, GM had such huge clout in the country that oil companies scrambled and had unleaded gas on sale in time for the 1975 cars.
"I was tremendously lucky to be in the right place at the right time," says Klimisch, who continued working for GM until retirement and now teaches part time at a charter junior high school in Detroit. "What an incredible opportunity to work on a problem like this."