The University of New Mexico is part of a team that was recently awarded a $2.5 million award from the Department of Energy to lower automobile manufacturing costs by modifying the composition of catalytic converters.

The project, led by Washington State University, aims to reduce the use of platinum group metals (PGMs) in catalytic converters, a move that will lower manufacturing costs while cleaning air pollution from automobiles. The research team includes UNM, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and industry partners BASF and Fiat Chrysler.

The project is one of 55 nationwide to support new and innovative advanced vehicle technologies.

“This DOE funding allows us to work with industry partners to take our initial discovery into commercial practice” said Abhaya Datye, Distinguished Regents’ Professor and chair of the UNM Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “It is exciting to get a chance to test catalysts developed in our laboratory under real-world conditions.”

Catalytic converters have been used in the U.S. since the 1970s as a way to clean up pollutants from vehicle exhaust. In the catalytic process, precious and scarce metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, are needed to convert carbon monoxide and other pollutants to non-toxic carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water.

Increasingly stringent emission standards in recent years, as well as the increased popularity of larger vehicles, have driven up demand and the price of these rare elements – from a global industry cost of $19 billion in 2018 to $54.6 billion in 2020. A gram of rhodium costs over $70.

“This is really about working closely with industry partners to meet emission requirements and to solve national needs,” said Yong Wang, Voiland Distinguished Professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at Washington State University, who is leading the project. “Everyone drives a car, and nobody wants to pay an extra $500.”

Because of their expense and scarcity, industries are continually looking to use less of these platinum group metals. Unfortunately, during their use at high temperatures, the metal atoms required for the reactions tend to mobilize and fly together into clumps, which reduces catalyst efficiency and performance. This is the primary reason catalytic converters are tested regularly for effectiveness and why manufacturers are forced to use greater amounts of precious metals.

In 2016, UNM and WSU researchers developed thermally durable single-atom catalysts by trapping metal atoms on the surface of cerium oxide, a chemical compound that is commonly used in emission control catalysts. The single-atom catalyst they developed can perform reactions at the low temperatures that are needed for more efficient engines while also surviving the harsh conditions encountered during driving. In this project, the team will apply the same concept to capture palladium and rhodium atoms for catalytic reactions.

The research team aims to reduce the amount of platinum group metals in the converter systems by about three or four times, using a maximum of 2.5 grams of palladium and .3 grams of rhodium in each vehicle. Such a reduction would save between $360 to $820 per vehicle and up to $14.3 billion for the industry.