The catalytic converter consists of many components:
The catalyst core, or substrate. For automotive catalytic converters, the core is usually a ceramic monolith with a honeycomb structure. Metallic foil monoliths made of FeCrAl are used in some applications. This is partially a cost issue. Ceramic cores are inexpensive when manufactured in large quantities. Metallic cores are less expensive to build in small production runs, and are used in sportscars where low back pressure and reliability under continuous high load is required. Either material is designed to provide a high surface area to support the catalyst washcoat, and therefore is often called a “catalyst support”. The cordierite ceramic substrate used in most catalytic converters was invented by Rodney Bagley, Irwin Lachman and Ronald Lewis at Corning Glass, for which they were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.
The washcoat is a carrier for the catalytic materials and is used to disperse the materials over a high surface area. Aluminum oxide, titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide, or a mixture of silica and alumina can be used. The catalytic materials are suspended in the washcoat prior to applying to the core. Washcoat materials are selected to form a rough, irregular surface, which greatly increases the surface area compared to the smooth surface of the bare substrate. This in turn maximizes the catalytically active surface available to react with the engine exhaust. The coat must retain its surface area and prevent sintering of the catalytic metal particles even at high temperatures (1000 °C).
The catalyst itself is most often a precious metal. Platinum is the most active catalyst and is widely used, but is not suitable for all applications because of unwanted additional reactions and high cost. Palladium and rhodium are two other precious metals used. Rhodium is used as a reduction catalyst, palladium is used as an oxidation catalyst, and platinum is used both for reduction and oxidation. Cerium, iron, manganese and nickel are also used, although each has its own limitations. Nickel is not legal for use in the European Union (because of its reaction with carbon monoxide into nickel tetracarbonyl). Copper can be used everywhere except North America, where its use is illegal because of the formation of dioxin.