Kathleen C. Taylor
In 1969, a patent was issued for the catalytic converter, which uses chemical reactions to turn noxious emissions into less harmful gases. Originally invented by Eugene Houdry, chemical engineer Kathleen C. Taylor and others improved the device.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 required, among other things, that car makers clean up the exhaust produced by their new vehicles. In those days, exhaust released from the tailpipe of a car was full of toxic compounds, like carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. Some years earlier Eugene Houdry, a French scientist working in the United States, had invented early versions of a device called a catalytic converter that made auto exhaust much cleaner. Emission control occupied a large portion of Taylor’s research at General Motors.
In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the reaction. A catalytic converter is a device located between a car’s engine and exhaust pipe. The converter is filled with tiny particles of the metals platinum and rhodium. These metals catalyze chemical reactions that turn toxic compounds in the exhaust into less toxic ones. One of the problems with the earliest catalytic converters was their tendency to convert nitric oxide into ammonia. Since ammonia is also toxic, this really did not help matters much. Taylor and her coworkers invented an improved catalytic converter that converted nitric oxide into nitrogen gas, which is not only nontoxic, but also makes up most of the air we breathe.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation