Where is the Catalytic Converter Located

The ability to recognize specific components of your car can be very important for a number of reasons. Some rudimentary engine knowledge can save you hundreds of dollars allowing you to perhaps resolve minor issues yourself or to help guide your mechanic to the root of an issue.

Understanding where a component such as the catalytic converter is or should be located can therefore be a handy piece of information. In this post we explore what a catalytic converter is, why it’s needed and where it is located on your vehicle.

What is a Catalytic Converter?

If you grew up during the 70s and 80s you may recall occasionally driving around in cars with the windows down and smelling a sulfur rotten egg smell from time to time. After exclaiming “what is that smell?” someone in the car likely enlightened you to it being a catalytic converter.

This simple answer doesn’t mean much so let's explore just what a catalytic converter actually is. Basically catalytic converters are devices that capture the emissions from the burning of petroleum. Once captured these fumes are stripped of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons.

The remaining emissions are then released from the catalytic converter in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and Water (H2O). These emissions of course are far less harmful to the environment meaning that the fuel burning process is cleaner.

How do Catalytic Converters Work?

There are many different types of catalytic converters but they all work along the same principals. Essentially inside these devices there are chemical elements that are used as catalysts. There are reduction catalysts and oxidation catalysts.

These catalysts are metals such as platinum, rhodium or palladium which by the way are not inexpensive. This often means that replacing the catalytic converter is not cheap. The metals are often coating ceramic structures and will trap and react with the carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons as they pass through the device.

Firstly reduction catalysts such as platinum or rhodium act upon the nitrogen oxides ripping away the nitrogen atoms from the compound. As an example when nitrogen dioxide (N02) passes over these catalysts the nitrogen (N) is ripped away leaving only the two O atoms which for those who might not know is simple oxygen.

The next phase is the oxidation catalysts which might be platinum or palladium. These catalysts with the help of the extra oxygen from the reduction phase take care of carbon monoxide CO and hydrocarbons. Instead of removing atoms they actual force a bond between the O2 and CO molecules turning oxygen and carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide (CO2)

Although excess CO2 is still not great for the environment it is much more preferable to carbon monoxide which can be lethal. Poorly maintained gas burning heating systems for example might produce excess carbon monoxide in your home. The accumulation of this is poisonous and can kill.

History of Catalytic Converters

A French inventor by the name of Eugene Houdry was a chemical engineer in the oil refining industry during the 40s and 50s. It was in 1952 that Houdry created the first patent for a catalytic converter device.

Originally it was designed to scrub the primary chemicals that were emitted into the atmosphere as a result of fuel combustion. These early devices worked great in smokestacks but were not so efficient when used directly on industrial equipment.

It wasn’t until the early to mid 1970s however that catalytic converters made their ways onto automobiles. In 1970 the United States passed the “Clean Air Act” which vowed to lower vehicle emissions by 75% by 1975.

One major change made to achieve this environmental goal was a switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline and the second part was the introduction of catalytic converters. The lead within leaded gasoline hampered the effectiveness of catalytic converters. So in combination with unleaded gasoline catalytic converters quickly made a huge difference.

The early car catalytic converters worked on carbon monoxide. It was later that Dr. Carl Keith invented the three-way catalytic converter which added the ability to deal with nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons as well.

Where is the Catalytic Converter Located?

Now to the big question: if you needed to locate your catalytic converter where would you find it? The catalytic converter is part of your car's exhaust system so is generally found near the rear of your vehicle. There are obviously some variations depending on vehicle type.

The converter will be located along your exhaust pipe and will generally be of a larger diameter than the pipe itself. So if you trace back from the end of your exhaust pipe you should easily locate the device. If you go further back along the exhaust line you will likely find the muffler.

As mentioned some vehicles are different but as a rule of thumb you should find the catalytic converter close to the outlet of your exhaust pipe. You will also likely need to look beneath your vehicle as this is where the exhaust pipe generally runs.

What’s with the Rotten Egg Smell?

As mentioned earlier there is occasionally a smell of rotten eggs or sulfur associated with catalytic converters. This is not a normal aspect of the converter rather it is an indication of a potentially damaged or failing system.

The sulfurous elements found in gasoline should be stopped by the catalytic converter but if there are issues with the device these smells may be emitted. You might smell this from inside the car or in extreme cases when passing a car that has an issue.

Why do Catalytic Converters Get Stolen?

You may have heard of wheels being stolen off cars and gasoline being syphoned especially in more recent times but did you know there is a problem with catalytic converter theft? It may seem odd that part of the engine system can and in fact frequently is stolen.

As mentioned earlier the metals in catalytic converters are among the rarer ones which means they are more expensive. You may recall the line from the song “Santa Baby” where a deed to a platinum mine is requested as a gift. This would truly be a valuable gift indeed as for many years platinum was more expensive than gold.

So one reason that people might steal a catalytic converter might be to extract the platinum and the other metals from the device. These then could be sold for a decent amount of money.

As a part the catalytic converter is also expensive to replace which is another reason it is commonly stolen. Often the thief will sell the part on to someone else meaning those buying a second hand catalytic converter may want to be wary of who they purchase from.

Generally speaking you don’t remove a functioning catalytic converter from a vehicle for any reason so second hand ones either come from a scrapped vehicle or they may have been stolen. The temptation for a deal however does keep up demand for sometimes less than legitimate catalytic converters.

Conclusion

The catalytic converter is often found near the end of your exhaust system closest to the outlet of your actual exhaust pipe. It will usually be located on the underside of the vehicle and will be noticeable as having a larger diameter than your exhaust.

It may be somewhere between your muffler and the exhaust outlet. If there is nothing there but a gap then you have a problem because catalytic converter theft is a real issue today and has been for many years.

This is an expensive part which makes it a target for theft. It takes some real nerve for a thief to steal these units as they often have to be cut free from the underside of your vehicle. They still do so, so make sure to take precautions if your vehicle might be parked in a deserted area.

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