Types of catalytic converter


A two-way (or “oxidation”) catalytic converter has two simultaneous tasks:

  • Oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide: 2CO + O2 → 2CO2
  • Oxidation of hydrocarbons (unburnt and partially burnt fuel) to carbon dioxide and water: CxH2x+2 + [(3x+1)/2] O2 → xCO2 + (x+1) H2O (a combustion reaction)

This type of catalytic converter is widely used on diesel engines to reduce hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions. They were also used on gasoline engines in American- and Canadian-market automobiles until 1981. Because of their inability to control oxides of nitrogen, they were superseded by three-way converters.


Since 1981, “three-way” (oxidation-reduction) catalytic converters have been used in vehicle emission control systems in the United States and Canada; many other countries have also adopted stringent vehicle emission regulations that in effect require three-way converters on gasoline-powered vehicles. The reduction and oxidation catalysts are typically contained in a common housing, however in some instances they may be housed separately. A three-way catalytic converter has three simultaneous tasks:

  • Reduction of nitrogen oxides to nitrogen and oxygen: 2NOx → xO2 + N2
  • Oxidation of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide: 2CO + O2 → 2CO2
  • Oxidation of unburnt hydrocarbons (HC) to carbon dioxide and water: CxH2x+2 + [(3x+1)/2]O2 → xCO2 + (x+1)H2O.

These three reactions occur most efficiently when the catalytic converter receives exhaust from an engine running slightly above the stoichiometric point. This point is between 14.6 and 14.8 parts air to 1 part fuel, by weight, for gasoline. The ratio for Autogas (or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)), natural gas and ethanol fuels is each slightly different, requiring modified fuel system settings when using those fuels. In general, engines fitted with 3-way catalytic converters are equipped with a computerized closed-loop feedback fuel injection system using one or more oxygen sensors, though early in the deployment of three-way converters, carburetors equipped for feedback mixture control were used.

Three-way catalysts are effective when the engine is operated within a narrow band of air-fuel ratios near stoichiometry, such that the exhaust gas oscillates between rich (excess fuel) and lean (excess oxygen) conditions. However, conversion efficiency falls very rapidly when the engine is operated outside of that band of air-fuel ratios. Under lean engine operation, there is excess oxygen and the reduction of NOx is not favored. Under rich conditions, the excess fuel consumes all of the available oxygen prior to the catalyst, thus only stored oxygen is available for the oxidation function. Closed-loop control systems are necessary because of the conflicting requirements for effective NOx reduction and HC oxidation. The control system must prevent the NOx reduction catalyst from becoming fully oxidized, yet replenish the oxygen storage material to maintain its function as an oxidation catalyst.

Three-way catalytic converters can store oxygen from the exhaust gas stream, usually when the air-fuel ratio goes lean. When insufficient oxygen is available from the exhaust stream, the stored oxygen is released and consumed. A lack of sufficient oxygen occurs either when oxygen derived from NOx reduction is unavailable or when certain maneuvers such as hard acceleration enrich the mixture beyond the ability of the converter to supply oxygen.

Unwanted reactions can occur in the three-way catalyst, such as the formation of odoriferous hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Formation of each can be limited by modifications to the washcoat and precious metals used. It is difficult to eliminate these byproducts entirely. Sulfur-free or low-sulfur fuels eliminate or reduce hydrogen sulfide.

For example, when control of hydrogen-sulfide emissions is desired, nickel or manganese is added to the washcoat. Both substances act to block the absorption of sulfur by the washcoat. Hydrogen sulfide is formed when the washcoat has absorbed sulfur during a low-temperature part of the operating cycle, which is then released during the high-temperature part of the cycle and the sulfur combines with HC.

Diesel engines

For compression-ignition (i.e., diesel engines), the most commonly used catalytic converter is the Diesel Oxidation Catalyst (DOC). This catalyst uses O2 (oxygen) in the exhaust gas stream to convert CO (carbon monoxide) to CO2 (carbon dioxide) and HC (hydrocarbons) to H2O (water) and CO2. These converters often operate at 90 percent efficiency, virtually eliminating diesel odor and helping to reduce visible particulates (soot). These catalysts are not active for NOx reduction because any reductant present would react first with the high concentration of O2 in diesel exhaust gas.

Reduction in NOx emissions from compression-ignition engines has previously been addressed by the addition of exhaust gas to incoming air charge, known as exhaust gas recirculation (EGR). In 2010, most light-duty diesel manufacturers in the U.S. added catalytic systems to their vehicles to meet new federal emissions requirements. There are two techniques that have been developed for the catalytic reduction of NOx emissions under lean exhaust conditions – selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and the lean NOx trap or NOx adsorber. Instead of precious metal-containing NOx adsorbers, most manufacturers selected base-metal SCR systems that use a reagent such as ammonia to reduce the NOx into nitrogen. Ammonia is supplied to the catalyst system by the injection of urea into the exhaust, which then undergoes thermal decomposition and hydrolysis into ammonia. One trademark product of urea solution, also referred to as Diesel Emission Fluid (DEF), is AdBlue.

Diesel exhaust contains relatively high levels of particulate matter (soot), consisting in large part of elemental carbon. Catalytic converters cannot clean up elemental carbon, though they do remove up to 90 percent of the soluble organic fraction, so particulates are cleaned up by a soot trap or diesel particulate filter (DPF). Historically, a DPF consists of a Cordierite or Silicon Carbide substrate with a geometry that forces the exhaust flow through the substrate walls, leaving behind trapped soot particles. Contemporary DPFs can be manufactured from a variety of rare metals that provide superior performance (at a greater expense). As the amount of soot trapped on the DPF increases, so does the back pressure in the exhaust system. Periodic regenerations (high temperature excursions) are required to initiate combustion of the trapped soot and thereby reducing the exhaust back pressure. The amount of soot loaded on the DPF prior to regeneration may also be limited to prevent extreme exotherms from damaging the trap during regeneration. In the U.S., all on-road light, medium and heavy-duty vehicles powered by diesel and built after January 1, 2007, must meet diesel particulate emission limits that means they effectively have to be equipped with a 2-Way catalytic converter and a diesel particulate filter. Note that this applies only to the diesel engine used in the vehicle. As long as the engine was manufactured before January 1, 2007, the vehicle is not required to have the DPF system. This led to an inventory runup by engine manufacturers in late 2006 so they could continue selling pre-DPF vehicles well into 2007.

Lean burn spark-ignition engines

For lean burn spark-ignition engines, an oxidation catalyst is used in the same manner as in a diesel engine. Emissions from Lean Burn Spark Ignition Engines are very similar to emissions from a Diesel Compression Ignition engine.