With the arrival of Earth Day on Apr. 22, most people will agree that we are all breathing a little easier than back in 1970. One man who deserves a great deal of credit for the cleaner air is John Mooney, a spry, gray-haired chemist who just celebrated his 70th birthday. A 40-year veteran of Engelhard Corp., Mooney was a central figure in the company's development of what might be the most significant pollution-control device of the 20th century--the catalytic converter.
Few give much thought to these devices. They're at the unseen end of the tailpipe of all new cars, where they convert exhaust gases into less poisonous compounds. Since Mooney's converters were first installed in 1974, the devices have prevented hundreds of millions of tons of pollutants--harmful hydrocarbon particulates and poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides--from entering the atmosphere.
The introduction of this technology also led to another, unintended benefit. Because catalytic converters proved ineffective in the presence of lead, the U.S. government was forced to ban the use of leaded fuels before the converters could be widely used. This led to sharp reductions in levels of a dangerous pollutant that can cause brain damage.
Business Week Online science and technology correspondent Alan Hall recently reached Mooney for an e-mail conversation from his hotel in Manila--"a polluted city we hope to help," as the inventor put it. Mooney was speaking at a conference sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, in his role as a promoter of clean-car technologies. Here are some of his thoughts:
Q: How did the catalytic converter come about?
A: The first work on the catalysts at Engelhard was in the 1950s. When California issued the first auto-emission standards in the early 1960s, Engelhard and other companies considered catalytic converters. My group developed the first solid converter built from a porous ceramic honeycomb. But we found that the lead used in gasoline was "poison" to the catalyst. At the time, we ran an 80,000-mile test on a propane-fueled vehicle and found durable performance. But because the oil industry was our customer for petroleum catalysts and not likely to look favorably on a call for unleaded gasoline, we didn't publish the results. The automotive project was shelved, and instead we found a market for forklift trucks and mining equipment that ran on propane fuels.
Q: So, before catalytic converters could be put into cars, the lead had to come out of gasoline?
A: That's right. At the time, over 250,000 tons of lead were being dumped into the air each year in the U.S. alone. The auto makers played the leading role. Ford Science Laboratories visited us in 1968 and we showed them our unpublished test data on propane. They quickly took on the project, confirming lab tests, and then completed their own vehicle durability work. By 1969, the Ford researchers were convinced that the catalytic converter was the way to go. They eventually decided to propose a plan to Congress with an offer to clean up vehicle exhaust provided that unleaded gasoline was made available.
Henry Ford II was set to do this but got cold feet. So General Motors President Ed Cole got the call. In November, 1969, he met with a group of Congressmen and made the offer. This was curious because GM knew less than Ford about this subject, but Cole was an engineer of great depth. The result was that on Feb. 10, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the 1975 and 1980 emission standards. That summer, 43 universities completed the Clean Air Car Race and met both standards--using our converter as the key emission-control equipment. Our project was restarted in February 1970, and I was put in charge.
Q: What was your role?
A: Initially, it was getting the R&D going. But later I began to take the converter to the other auto companies. I visited all the car companies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. We won a 1971 Ford contract for 1974 California and 1975 U.S. models. This permitted us to develop and prove the first mass-production system by January, 1973.
Q: How effective have converters proved to be?
A: By one estimate, catalytic converters have destroyed more than 500 million tons of carbon monoxide and more than 50 million tons of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons each. To put it in perspective, 500 million tons of carbon monoxide is enough to fill 150 million Astrodomes with a lethal dose. And, then, of course, there's those tons and tons of lead.
Q: Are there still parts of the world where cars are being made without converters?
A: Southeast Asia, China, and India have just started to apply catalytic converters. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has gotten most member countries to agree to an auto-emissions control timetable. For example, pollution is very bad in Manila, but by the year 2002 the Philippines will adopt a plan like the U.S. had in 1983. The Mideast and Africa still have leaded gasoline--so initial steps have not been taken.
Q: Do you play a missionary role in getting other countries to adopt the converter?
A: This trip is such a mission. The Society of Automotive Engineers did similar meetings in China and Thailand in the last couple of years. Information and understanding among the key people in each country is needed to implement emission-control plans and overcome opposition and misunderstanding. I helped convince China that it would be less expensive to cut leaded gasoline all at once, instead of phasing it out. I carried this logic to India, and they are now doing the same.
Q: What else remains to be done?
A: Diesel trucks are our next challenge. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make a heavy-duty diesel-engine proposal in late April or May. The standards will be 90% more strict than currently. But our task is large--we have to develop a new nitrogen-oxide control system and integrate it with an already developed particulate-matter control system.
Q: How about those noisy little engines in lawn mowers and leaf blowers?
A: A small group of us worked with Husqvarna, a Swedish company in the Electrolux group, to develop a catalyst system for the small two-stroke engines used in handheld lawn and garden equipment. When we were done, the catalytic plate contributed to an improvement of 30% fuel economy, 40% better power, 80% lower noise, no visible smoke or odor, and over 60% reduction in hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, all at a cost of less than $4 per unit. Husqvarna put it on all weed-whackers sold in the U.S. even though it was not required. This allowed California and the EPA to tighten the emission standards that all other manufacturers have to meet.
Q: Of what are you most proud?
A: When I think of the many children who now will not be poisoned by lead, I go to sleep with a smile on my face. And then there is the fact that catalytic converters will clean up the air and make for a healthier environment for many millions--and that makes the smile last and last.