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Junkies Love Catalytic Converters: But How Do They Work?

Posted in Bizarre, Cars, Emissions, Newsworthy by Vito Rispo | August 28th, 2008 | 2 Responses |

A Catalytic Converter, cut from a car

Working at an auto salvage yard, you see a lot strange things. The auto scrap business has been tied to scoundrels, freaks, and weirdos for most of it’s history. In fact, the term Junkie actually comes from the fact that heroin addicts used to collect (read:steal) all sorts of scrap metal and turn it in for the few dollars they needed for their next fix. That led to heroin being called junk.

At our business, we had people willing to sneak in, steal 50 dollar aluminum rims, and scrap them just for the metal, which is worth about 7 dollars to them. The worst were catalytic converters (called cats), which contain small amounts of precious metals. Most people don’t realize this, but some of the bigger ones can contain upwards of 200 dollars worth of metal. A bin filled with cats is a big target for thieves.

That high price is because of a recent spike in the metal market; precious metals have gone through the roof and catalytic converters have gone with them. One of the common metals, Rhodium, went up above $10k an ounce recently. Because of that rise in prices, police have seen an equal rise is people stealing cats right from under cars parked in the street. Apparently, even 50 dollars a cat is reward enough for the those maniac thieves to set loose on the honest citizens of the city with their wrenches and their reciprocating saws.

How do catalytic converters work?:

A Diagram of a Catalytic Converter

A catalytic converter interacts with the fumes from your engine, turning them from dangerous and deadly to cute and cuddly. Actually, it just makes them mostly inert. More specifically, it has 3 main functions, it turns the hydrocarbons into water and carbon dioxide; the nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen; and the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.

It does this using a catalyst, almost always one of three precious metals, platinum, palladium, or rhodium; or a combination of them. It’s those precious metals that make the cats so expensive, even though theres only a sprinkling of the metal in there.

Inside the converter, there is usually a very tight honeycomb structure made of ceramic that’s coated with the precious metals, the fumes pass through the honeycomb and come out the other side as inert gases. About 90% of the badness in your exhaust is converted as it passes though.

Most converters are welded on to the exhaust system, but some cars, especially some SUVs, have bolt on converters. This allows homeless junkies to slip right under the car with an adjustable wrench and a can of WD-40 and be done in no time at all. Even if they’re not bolted on, 2 minutes with a reciprocating saw, and a thief could have your cat and be halfway to the dealers house.

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2 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    I gots some rhodium growing all around my house. Right next to the azaleas.
    Anyway– This is no BS. The other trend is gas tanks getting holes knocked into them. It’s easier for the thieves to tap a hole into your tank with a hammer and punch than it is to siphon it.
    Ain’t city life fun??

  2. Muffler Mike says:

    No car is ever worthless