The Catalyst Caper | June 2, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 22 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 22 | p. 32
Issue Date: June 2, 2008

The Catalyst Caper

High prices for precious metals make catalytic converters a target of theft
Department: Business
Hard Steal
Some catalytic converters are closer to the engine's exhaust manifold, making them more difficult for thieves to remove.
Credit: General Motors
Hard Steal
Some catalytic converters are closer to the engine's exhaust manifold, making them more difficult for thieves to remove.
Credit: General Motors

MOTORISTS have learned to take down the window mounts for their GPS systems when they leave their cars unattended. But there is a new form of automotive theft they can do little about. The theft of precious-metal-containing catalytic converters is increasingly becoming a nuisance across the U.S.

Thieves with electric saws crawl under parked cars and sever the catalytic converter canisters right off the exhaust pipe, often in less than a minute. Victims find nothing amiss about their cars until they turn the ignition and the engine roars like a motorcycle.

It's hard to pin down how prevalent the problem has become. Frank Scafidi is a spokesman with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks car theft data. He says it is impossible to keep reliable nationwide statistics on theft of catalytic converters. NICB gets its crime data from the insurance company claims process, and catalytic converter theft often isn't reported because the damage isn't more than the deductible threshold. Many victims don't even call the police.

"We can't give a good, honest assessment of how many thefts of catalytic converters there are now versus 2004 or anything like that," he says. Yet Scafidi comes across anecdotal evidence of an increase. About a year ago, he queried NICB regional field agents and found "nothing that would point to an epidemic." Two months ago, he got a "heavy response" from the agents.

James Woods, a vehicle theft investigator with the Houston Police Department, says regional law enforcement officials complained at a recent meeting about a rash of thefts of converters, as well as thefts of metal car parts such as aluminum wheels. Houston-area salvage yard operators have told him stories of thieves scaling the fence on weekend nights and stealing parts. In Houston, Woods says, 36 such incidents were reported in 2006 versus 34 in 2005, a modest increase that he notes doesn't include unreported crimes.

The thieves are after the platinum group metals—platinum, palladium, and rhodium—contained in the converters. These catalysts reduce nitrogen oxides and oxidize carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in auto exhaust fumes.

And just as high commodity prices have spurred increases in theft of scrap copper, steel, and other metals, they are behind the rise in catalytic converter theft as well. According to British metals and catalyst supplier Johnson Matthey, platinum prices have increased by more than 80% over the past two years, hitting nearly $2,000 per troy ounce (ozt) in April. Meanwhile, palladium costs have increased 27% and rhodium prices have more than doubled, reaching $450 and $9,063 per ozt, respectively.

OF COURSE, the converters don't contain the precious metals at very high levels. The catalysts are thinly coated onto a porous ceramic substrate in the converter canister. The amount of precious metals in a converter varies greatly by type of vehicle—for instance, sport-utility vehicles have larger units than compact cars. Either way, the metal content is measured in grams, not ounces.

Ashok Kumar, director of the Croydon, Pa., converter recycler A-1 Specialized Services & Supplies, says scrap converters now tend to sell for an average of $70 to $100 apiece. "Recent metal prices have been at record high levels, so scrap converter prices are also higher than before," he says. "Higher prices no doubt attract thieves."

Thieves fence their illicit converters through the legitimate catalytic converter recycling chain. This is because the process required to extract precious metals from the canisters isn't the sort of thing that can be done in a bathtub.

The supply chain begins with scrapyards that buy converters salvaged from junked cars. They are sold to brokers who aggregate hundreds of converters. Processors like A-1 then remove the ceramic substrates from the can and pulverize them. This feedstock is fed to furnaces that heat it to more than 1,500 °C to melt it. The metals are separated from the ceramic slag and go through further refining steps to yield purified platinum, palladium, or rhodium.

Jerry Puckett of Johnson City, Tenn.-based Catmax, which buys converters in big lots, says it is impossible to distinguish converters that have been stolen from those that haven't. Invariably, stolen converters creep into the supply chain. "About 2% of the converters that come through my door are probably stolen, but I don't know which ones they are," Puckett says. He adds that he won't buy converters from people who he suspects are stealing them.

Kumar doubts that reputable recyclers would knowingly accept stolen material. He recommends countermeasures such as paying by check and background screens on new suppliers. "The best precaution anybody can take is making a copy of the driver's license of someone selling parts," he says. "The buyer has to be sure from whom he is buying."

Puckett notes that such methods are becoming the law in many places. In Tennessee, lawmakers have enacted new waiting periods for cash payments and the resale of catalytic converters, giving the police time to investigate the materials if necessary.

According to Puckett, better automotive design can also deter thieves. SUVs that are high off the ground and have the converter in the middle of the exhaust system can be ripped off in about 30 seconds. Converters that are closer to the engine's exhaust manifold or are recessed into the chassis are too hard to reach to be stolen.

And someone who hears the sibilance of saw on metal late at night would be wise to check out what is going on in the parking lot.

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