Catalytic Converter Theft Is on the Rise – Here’s Why

Catalytic converters cut down on toxic car emissions, and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they’re one of the greatest environmental inventions of all time. Today, catalytic converter theft is on the rise, and that’s partly because of their chemistry.

Video Transcript:

If you turn on your car and it sounds like a lawnmower, congratulations! Your catalytic converter has been stolen.

Apparently, that’s been happening to a lot of people lately.

[RYAN] I got in the car and turned it on and it sounded like I was starting up a drag car.

[JEAN] There was this horrendous roar, like I was at a speedway, no muffler. I called my mechanic and he said, they stole your catalytic converter. That’s all I had to tell him, and he knew.

[RYAN] I called a mechanic that was right down the street, just a few blocks away, and I told them about it and they were like, oh, that’s the catalytic converter, we’ve gotten three of those this week.

[SAM] Catalytic converters were first introduced on a large scale in the 1970s in the US, where air pollution was becoming a huge issue. They cut down on most toxic car emissions by 99 percent, and according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, they’re one of the greatest environmental inventions of all time.

So why are they being stolen?

To really understand why catalytic converters are being stolen we need to start at the beginning, with the engine.

When you drive your engine burns the gasoline to produce the energy that moves your car, and the gasoline that it burns is mostly just different types of hydrocarbons. In a perfect world, those hydrocarbons would combust completely, so they’d combine with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water vapor, nothing else.

But in the real world gasoline doesn’t combust perfectly, and incomplete combustion can leave you with toxic gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides coming out your tailpipe. And there used to be no regulation for that.

Oh, the air is filled with carbon monoxide? Suck it up, weaklings.

But then in 1970, the Clean Air Act allowed the EPA to regulate air pollution. That’s where the catalytic converter came in.

It is right here, between the engine, and the muffler.

Catalytic converters quickly became a very effective way of cutting down on that air pollution. But what makes them so effective?

They use transition metals, specifically combinations of platinum, palladium, and rhodium. These metals are great at giving up and taking back electrons, which makes them good catalysts. That means they can speed up reactions in other molecules without changing themselves.

When the toxic fumes from incomplete combustion in your engine make their way to the catalytic converter, they first reach platinum and rhodium. In this case platinum and rhodium are speeding up a reduction reaction.

In a reduction reaction, a compound loses oxygen atoms and/or gains electrons. Platinum and rhodium reduce the toxic nitrogen oxide compounds by pulling off their oxygen atoms, which are then released as oxygen gas. Then the remaining nitrogen atoms react with each other and nitrogen gas is released.

So we went from toxic nitrogen dioxide or nitric oxide to harmless nitrogen gas and oxygen gas.

Next platinum and palladium speed up an oxidation reaction. An oxidation reaction is the opposite of a reduction reaction. A compound gains oxygen atoms and or loses electrons. Platinum and palladium gather up oxygens and use them to oxidize leftover gasoline hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, producing mostly carbon dioxide and water.

So why are people stealing catalytic converters?

Over the last few decades more and more countries have been enacting stricter and stricter emission standards, so there’s more demand for catalytic converters, which means there’s more demand for their metals.

Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are all extremely rare, so their prices have gone way up.

On top of that they’re also used in a lot of electronics, which boosts demand even more.

Rhodium was about 600 bucks per ounce five years ago. Today it’s over 21,000 dollars per ounce, which is 10 times the price of gold. And one catalytic converter has about 400 dollars worth of rhodium in it.

So people are cutting catalytic converters out of cars and selling them for scrap. Some states are trying to really tightly regulate scrap metal sales to hopefully cut down on catalytic converter theft. There are also researchers looking at less expensive metals for catalytic converters which could help a lot.

Catalytic converters are really important, but they’re not perfect. Our cars are still releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, and catalytic converters are releasing little bits of platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which could be bad for us and other animals.

Unfortunately there’s still no silver bullet for solving all our car emission problems. If you’re burning gasoline, you’re just gonna have emissions.

 

American Chemical SocietyAtmospheric ScienceBehavioral ScienceEnergyPollutionPopularVehicles
Comments ( 53 )
Add Comment
  • John Campbell

    “Unfortunately there’s still no silver bullet for solving all our car emission problems. If you’re burning gasoline, you’re just gonna have emissions.”

    Which rock is this writer living under? Hasn’t he heard of the E.V?

    • Clyde Spencer

      EVs were the implication, which you didn’t catch.

      Just wait until the demand for lithium, cobalt, copper, and Rare Earth Elements sky rocket in price like rhodium has. You’ll be paying a lot more for your EV then.

    • Kyle

      You EV are clean? Not by a long shot… Im guessing you love Musk and believe every word he says too. Do some actual research instead of blindly believing what others say.

  • Terry

    This would not be a problem if auto companies would stop making polluting vehicles and change to EV. EVs do not pollute. We can all benefit from clean air. Why continue with polluting vehicles

    • Ryan

      Where do you think the energy comes from when you charge an EV? Not to mention where the materials to create the batteries come from? They all come from plants, and mines that use 99% gas and diesel power to produce energy and raw materials. Search up what a lithium mine looks like maybe that will help change your mine. EVs may not produce any tail pipe emissions but they do produce other emissions that are just less direct than what gasoline and diesel cars produce.

    • Ryan

      Where do you think the energy comes from when you charge an EV? Not to mention where the materials to create the batteries come from? They all come from plants, and mines that use 99% gas and diesel power to produce energy and raw materials. Search up what a lithium mine looks like maybe that will help change your mine. EVs may not produce any tail pipe emissions but they do produce other emissions that are just less direct than what gasoline and diesel cars produce. Please stay informed, because many people aren’t educated on where the electricity comes from and now the rare earth materials are mined for battery production.

  • Tiberius1701

    Well naive people swallow the EV pill. Have you ever asked yourself where does the energy to charge your miracle of transportation come from? And have you seen how the elements that are mined to create the batteries to make your miracle of transportation run are obtained and who are employed to get those elements? Finally where is the energy grid to supply your miracle of transportation? If you think EVs are the magic bullet, think again.

  • Walbone

    How about car manufacturers building cages for the cats as a theft deterrent.

  • Alek

    It’s been 50 years of catalytic converter, why nother new came out to reduce the price on them? Where are the scientists?? where is the new technology??? All they can do is make new smartphone and computers.

  • CC

    EVs also pollute ground level Ozone. This can cause asthma. City’s will have a problem if all of their cars are switched to ozone.

  • Ernesto

    Fear mongering is what you hear from this so called writer promoting an agenda for EV which is not a solution but a bigger problem! The emissions from gasoline cars are so low it dont matter to waste time and money in electric that anyway requires fossil fuel to function.

  • Red

    What a fluff piece. Another one.

    Where is the expose on who what and where is buying these stolen converters?

  • Ryan

    Electric vehicles are worse on the environment that gas, diesel, and natural gas vehicles. EV’s run on coal, and there is no way of recycling those poisonous batteries. Do your reasearch.

  • Alltrax

    The portion you quoted states “When burning gasoline” there was no need to reference EV’s… This is about gasoline emissions and reducing them not moving to a different drive platform.

  • MIKE Ogren

    The real problem is STUPID democrats we don’t want police You can’t fix STUPID

  • Dieselguy

    Can’t steal something that isn’t there 🤔

  • John

    EVs have their own bag of emissions issues. Those related to generation of electricity for your EV, the battery manufacturing process and the ecological impact of scrapping the dead batteries and or car using the short lived batteries.

  • John

    How about anti theft locks on them

  • John

    What rock have you been living under John? EVs don’t burn gasoline.

  • Rick

    And electric power production is emission free!? Come on people, can you really be that ignorant? Tell me how you get all the electricity to recharge the batteries.

    • Billybob

      If you catch someone stealing your cat from your car, can you shoot them?

  • Adam

    E.v didn’t make it in the early 1900s for the same reason they don’t today… What’s the point of burning coal to charge a e.v. or burning gas… Same sh*t diff. Day. When all the globalist are taken down we might have alot of patients they stole from Tesla .

  • Tim Ketchup

    I am trying to think of something intelligent to say, but I got nothing, Here’s a thought, steal a converter an we cut your hands off. It would stop instantly
    But we are soft an fat Americans ,we have to nice to the criminals. Reality is here an now

  • Charles

    Converter stealing would stop if you cut purchaser for the thieves .The thieves take the stolen converters to the local muffler shop sell them for $100.00 dollars and the thief at muffler shop sells them for $200.00 dollars to the German guy ,all cash deals.Buying stolen converters is a money maker for your local muffler shop.easy solution require proof ,paper trail from muffler shop.. if the muffler shops were stopped from buying from the thieves would be out of business .

  • Will

    Muffler shops buy stolen converters from crack heads for $75.00 and resell for sometimes $400.00 depending on type vehicle stolen from.muffler shops love crack heads.

  • Garry Slyfield

    And for those thinking electric is the way to go, wait until you need a replacement battery in the electrical vehicle. Ten thousand bucks for some. Guess what part will be stolen then.

  • Chris briney

    If we werent in abullshit time where cat converters were mandatory there wouldnt be theft

  • chavo

    Ev…..let’s speak about the battery and what you do with bad ones what are the environmental effects considering you can’t just throw regular batteries out with the trash? Also how does the car function with a failing battery and when the battery fails do you buy a new battery or is it cheaper to buy a new car?…..so many questions

  • John S Everett

    Now, the politicians want to drain that cash cow known as fossil fuels just like they did big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies making pain killers with opioids. They’ll call it a problem once the Hoover dam is drained but Italy is under water. Truth is, takes fossil fuels to make the EV’s, wind terrines, etc. but how is that an argument. It’s like saying preventing gangrene is going to cost somebody a leg, so it seems counterproductive to do an amputation. Besides no matter what side of the political spectrum you are from, science that least favorite topic for for some of you, tells us that fossil fuels will not last forever and we are using it s faster than ever. So we might as well start practicing. But don’t worry, because you would be surprised to realize this but we lived without the industrial age at one point. I kid you not, you can fact check it

  • SmittyJoe

    Why do people come here to complain about EVs? Should everyone just be content with gasoline engines and never invent better technology? Musk and the like are working on the problem while you all just complain they are going fast enough. Be better.

  • Terry Collins

    If anyone must know,carbon dioxide is an important atmosphere gas. If there was no carbon dioxide there won’t be any plant life. Plants need carbon dioxide just as we need oxygen to live. Carbohydrates are made in plants,and plants are our food source. And no plants means no us.

  • Captain Ahab

    We should be burning whale oil!!

  • Bruce Harris

    It’s not just muffler shops that are buying them. muffler shops that do buy them don’t scrap them. they resell them. But the majority of them are going to metal recycling and if you gut the case the substrate pays more, than the whole unit (proud muffler shop owner for 35+ years)

  • Ecl

    The article fails to mention that vehicle owners can purchase Cat shields that cover the cat converter and make it it more difficult to remove.

  • Idrees

    This wouldn’t be happening if ppl rode bicycles.

  • don'ttreadonme

    How about dealing with these tweekers rather than rewarding them for bad choices, and giving them a free pass when they commit crimes?

  • Robert

    I love that people think EV isnt polluting. Have you ever seen a lithium mine and the problems they cause. How about all the diesel powered equipment to get it out of the ground. I feel they should just put more time and energy into new converters. But what do i know

  • 946towguy

    Most newer cats since 2010 don’t have more than $200 worth of precious metals.

    Late model cats actually often find their way into a black market where they are illegally sold to disreputable shops which reinstall them into cars with stolen cats, while billing tge insurance for new parts.

    Basically, your cat gets stolen. You have your car towed to a shop. The shop helps you file an insurance claim. The shop buys a stolen cat (maybe even yours) for $200 and installs it. Then the shop bills the insurance $2500-3000.

  • Paul

    Since electricity isn’t free and can’t be magically generated let’s just abandon EVs and stick with 150yr old technology we know will eventually run out. Yeah, that sounds like the right solution.

  • Ev confused

    For that non polluting EV, have you thought about battery disposal? Strange how that never comes up. What really is the net carbon effect? So what should we really believe? For now, a reduction toward CO2 is a good thing. Let’s just hope there is a net reduction with EVs vs added electives output? Maybe we need to stop destroying the rain forests and all those trees that help filter C02.

  • Timothy Maximilian

    Have finger print, social security number, address and have picture of individual and I’ll bet crime will go down.

  • Hook them up

    Just hang some fishing hooks on steel leaders around them. Don’t be surprised when you find them in the morning

  • Matt

    Paul, the burning of fossil fuels is not a 150 yr old technology. Are fossil fuels still burned in the same manner as 150 yr ago? If so than how has our avg mpg per car increased? You also state that fossil fuels will eventually run out. If you know that, when will it happen, and which fossil fuel? If you know the answers to these questions you should be the richest man on earth!!

  • David Schuster

    You may not be aware but the pollution from the tires creates mo hydro carbons than the engine.

  • A reasonable person

    And all these idiots blaming the cars, emissions, and the CATS instead of the damn THIEVES. Must be the basement living generation way of thinking and the reason crime is on the rise. How about accountably instead of excuses.

  • Dr3yec

    My state cracked down on metal scrap to the point I don’t recycle anymore. I felt like I was a criminal everytime I went to the scrape yard. Screw that.

  • Manuel Sorto

    Evs ? Don’t pollut really? What about batteries how they are made or the batteries?

  • Phil Davis

    When I first scanned the title I thought it read “Catholic converter” 😂

  • ken Chance

    People stealing them be aware. I would shoot someone trying to steal mine. Can’t afford a new converter.

  • Brad

    “Platinum and rhodium may be harmful to humans and animals.” They are metals that don’t degrade. Isn’t that why they use them?

  • Gary Astorino

    Answer is simple. Build a cage around converter and make it illegal to buy a used converter unless you are a dealer with business and tax licenses with specific add on ability to sell them. Make fines for crime horrendously expensive. Done

  • Tyrone

    We could go back to the old way and incarcerate individuals after catching them stealing the converters. Better yet, when a victim catches a suspect stealing, the victim teaches the suspect what his momma should have a long time ago.

  • Smarter than you!

    To all of you special people who think EVs are emission free. You really should do some research. First of all the electricity to charge your EV probably comes from a fossil fuel burning plant. Second, all that lithium in your battery, you should see where that comes from. And lastly when that lithium battery dies, where are you going to put it?