Cooler Catalytic Converters: Cleaner Air for All

April 22, 2020
Cooler Catalytic Converters: Cleaner Air for All

Butterfly wings inspired this innovation that can remove air pollutants better and more cheaply than existing technology

Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology

By Lindsey Brownell

As the lives of millions of people worldwide were disrupted by social distancing measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, an unexpected piece of good news surfaced: levels of air pollution in major cities had dropped by up to 50% due to the global reduction in traveling, manufacturing, and construction. The most dramatic effects were seen in India, home to 14 of the 20 most polluted cities on Earth, where people posted photos on social media showing blue skies and clear air for the first time in recent memory.

The temporary reprieve was a stark reminder that the engine of modern society runs on the combustion of fossil fuels, which releases a noxious mix of chemicals into the air including poisonous carbon monoxide gas, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) like formaldehyde that can cause cancer, and nitrogen oxides that react with VOCs to create ozone, which causes breathing problems and even premature death. The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people are killed every year due to air pollution, and Greenpeace Southeast Asia has reported that polluted air costs the world trillions of dollars in medical care annually.

The problem of dirty air is not a new one: even burning wood releases toxic chemicals that can cause health issues when inhaled. But the explosion of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented levels of air pollution that continued largely unchecked through the early 20th century, exacerbated by the widespread adoption of gasoline-burning cars. There were no effective ways to remove pollutants from exhaust fumes until the 1950s, when mechanical engineer Eugene Houdry invented the first catalytic converter to address the black smog that was choking Los Angeles and other American cities.

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