An Engineer Who Put America Ahead … For a While

by Bill Chameides | November 19th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

The three-way catalytic converter, developed by Carl Keith and John Mooney, allowed first the U.S. and then other countries to clean up their air, saving untold lives. Where are the Keiths of today working on green energy technologies?

Recently I wrote about Thomas Midgley, a talented engineer whose inventions turned out to be environmental disasters. Today’s post looks at another engineer, Carl Keith, whose invention revolutionized air pollution control technology, and his ironic connection to Midgley.

Many experts agree that the twenty-first century’s technological frontier is in renewable energy, and that its developers will lead in the global marketplace. Seeing the United States well behind other countries in developing and selling wind and solar energy systems is therefore discouraging.

But it didn’t used to be that way. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, America led the world in environmental innovation and development. I came to appreciate this fact while in China in 1999.

That summer, Beijing invited me to advise the government on how to reduce the city’s oppressive, pervasive smog. They wanted blue skies for the ceremonies commemorating the People’s Republic’s 50th anniversary in October. Before my arrival, the government had already undertaken a number of air quality initiatives. Most impressive was a mandate that all cars in the metropolitan area be retrofitted with catalytic converters.

At the time virtually all new cars in the United States and Europe had these tailpipe devices to reduce polluting emissions. Catalytic converters are so named because they convert pollutants to relatively harmless gases through a chemical reaction. In Beijing, the government was doing us one better — not just requiring converters for new cars but for ALL cars, including those already on the road.

Retrofitting all of Beijing’s cars was no simple task. I remember long lines of cars waiting to enter a row of garages where mechanics busily retrofitted one vehicle after another. When I asked my hosts what kind of converter was being installed, they matter-of-factly replied, “American.” They explained the choice was a no-brainer -– American converters were the gold standard.

How did America become the leader in catalytic converter technology? The United States was years ahead of the rest of the world in clearing up its air quality. In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, a far more comprehensive and ambitious plan than any of its counterparts in other countries. Included was a mandate for significant reductions in automobile pollutant emissions. Car companies objected, saying there was no way for them to meet these cuts, but Congress went ahead anyway. Congress was essentially making a bet that by mandating an emission reduction that existing technology could not meet, it would force the development of more innovative technologies.

The bet paid off. Dr. Carl Keith and John Mooney, working at Engelhard Corporation, developed the three-way catalytic converter, a system capable of removing enough pollution to allow cars to meet the new law’s emissions standards. This was, essentially, the same catalytic converter that the Chinese mechanics were installing more than 20 years later.

Carl Keith, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Catalytic Converter, invented a technology that allowed first the United States and then other countries to clean up their air, saving untold lives. But there is more –- an unintended benefit.

Remember Midgley, the unfortunate engineer whose inventions did not fare so well? Well, one of his creations was a compound called tetra-ethyl lead used as a gasoline additive to boost octane. This boost unfortunately had a stiff price. Leaded gasoline put huge amounts of lead into the environment which eventually found its way into our children’s bodies leading to a variety of health effects including a reduction in IQ.

Keith’s catalytic converter could not operate if lead were present in the exhaust. So, as the three-way catalytic converter was introduced to the fleet, leaded gasoline was phased out. Lead levels in the bloodstreams of Americans fell dramatically, and we were without a doubt much better off.

(For completeness it should be noted that the catalytic converter had its own unintended negative environmental consequence. In removing tailpipe pollutants, catalytic converters produce nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas. Fortunately this source of N2O represents a very small contribution to the overall warming from human greenhouse gas emissions.)

There is also an important lesson in Keith’s work. A proactive, technology-forcing environmental policy can lead to major technological breakthroughs that do not only solve environmental problems but help establish America as a global leader. Today we are behind the rest of the world in renewable energy. Is the reason for this a lack of proactive, technology-forcing energy policy?

Maybe yes and maybe no, but regardless, Carl Keith won’t be able to help us on this one; he died on November 9, 2008 at the age of 88. Here’s hoping there are more innovators like Keith waiting to step up.

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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Dec 7, 2008

    Dr. Chameides, I’ve read that catalytic converters are partially made from palladium and/or platinum. The mining of those rare and expensive metals has its own negative environmental impacts – how does that weigh against the benefits? Dan” title=”Construction question

    • erica
      Dec 8, 2008

      From DR. CHAMEIDES – Dan – Good question and not one that I have a good answer to. I have seen a variety of studies on the subject and most conclude that the benefits outweigh the risks. But of course, that conclusion depends on how you weigh some benefits (e.g., reduced air pollution) over environmental effects (e.g., from mining).” title=”Good question

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