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Why No Catalytic Converter in American Is Safe

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Precious metals in auto exhaust systems have led to a nationwide crime wave. Is your car next?

What’s a catalytic converter?

Think of it as a filter for your car’s exhaust. Catalytic converters were added to American cars starting in 1975, along with unleaded gasoline, to lessen the environmental damage done by noxious auto emissions. Modern three-way catalytic converters, rolled out in 1981, oxidize carbon, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and water while reducing acid rain-causing nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into basic nitrogen. To clean emissions, catalytic converters need hot exhaust (752 degrees, which is why they’re usually positioned as close to the engine as possible) and corrosion-resistant hard metal catalysts made from platinum, palladium and rhodium.

Why do thieves want catalytic converters?

It’s all about those precious metals. Rhodium is one of the rarest and most valuable elements on Earth, with barely 30 tons mined worldwide each year (compared to 2,500 tons of gold), 80 percent of that from South Africa and most of the rest, at least before the invasion of Ukraine, from Russia. Part of that scarcity is due to its natural rarity, and part to the fact that it has to be extracted from existing platinum or nickel ore deposits. Palladium, while not quite as rare, also has to be extracted as a by-product of other precious metal mining. An estimated 80 percent of these two rare metals are used by the auto industry for catalytic converters—a supply that’s only gotten more scarce during the pandemic.

How do crooks get it?

The act is surprisingly simple: Thieves usually walk up with a duffel bag of tools (they sometimes use a racing-style rapid jack to lift the car), slide underneath and either unbolt the converter from the exhaust or simply cut it out with a sawzall. An experienced thief can be gone in 30 seconds, and the car owner won’t realize they’ve been hit until they start the car the next morning and it suddenly sounds like a revving Harley. Meanwhile, the thief sells the part to a scrapyard or auto parts recycler for anything from $300 to $1,500. Toyota Priuses fetch top dollar because their precious metals have been barely used.

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