John J. Mooney, co-inventor of the automotive catalytic converter, considered one of the most important innovations in the history of the automobile, will receive the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award during New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) annual Fall Awards ceremony. The ceremony will be held Oct. 6 at the university.
We can all breathe a lot easier thanks to John Mooney, of Wyckoff, who was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2002 for pioneering the automotive catalytic converter. In presenting the nation’s highest honor for science and technology to Mooney and his co-inventor, Carl D. Keith, President Bush remarked that the true reward for such innovators is the “good they do and the knowledge they leave behind.”
For Mooney, the path to this achievement includes his 1960 MS in chemical engineering from NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering (NCE), a cross-country race involving a motley assortment of vehicles dedicated to cleaner air, and racking up some 50,000 test miles by driving laps around Newark Airport. But all this came after Mooney’s 1955 BS in chemistry from Seton Hall University, a few years in the Army, and more than a decade of employment with Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G).
Born and raised in Paterson, Mooney went to work for PSE&G immediately after high school. “I was basically a clerk,” he says, “but I was also encouraged by some of my co-workers to ‘do something with my life.’” So Mooney mustered the energy to combine working with pursuit of a degree in chemistry. He then learned that he could readjust his professional focus and do graduate work in chemical engineering at NCE. “Although I liked my chemistry courses well enough,” Mooney said, “I’ve always had a practical bent. I like to make things happen, and that’s what engineers do — they take the basic science and make things happen.”
While studying at NCE, Mooney also helped to make things happen at PSE&G’s gas utilization laboratory. This experience would be valued by his next employer, Engelhard Industries, where he spent 43 years before retiring in 2003. “Being known as a ‘gas man’ when I joined Engelhard led to some terrific assignments,” Mooney says. These included developing a process for the U.S. Air Force that used a ruthenium catalyst to produce hydrogen from liquid ammonia. The catalytic system made it easier for the Air Force to supply hydrogen for weather balloons, since it was more efficient to ship liquid ammonia to distant locations than cylinders of gas.
Another innovative application of catalytic technology became the focus of Mooney’s work as the process engineer for Engelhard’s chemical division, which was headed by Keith. Their association brought results to the company’s nascent efforts to develop a catalytic approach to cutting undesirable vehicular emissions. They developed a “monolithic” catalytic converter that greatly reduced emissions from propane-fueled forklifts.
In the 1960s, Keith and Mooney promoted catalytic control of automobile emissions. By the end of the decade, the less-than-enthusiastic response from Detroit had been tempered by mounting social and legislative pressure for environmental improvement, particularly as a result of the smog problem in California. An important balance was tipped in favor of catalytic emissions control when Ford led car manufacturers in endorsing the concept and the federal government mandated production of gasoline without the lead that renders catalysts ineffective.
For Mooney and the Engelhard team, the Intercollegiate Clean Air Car Race of 1970 was the ideal opportunity to prove the environmental effectiveness and commercial potential of their first-generation catalytic converter. Several dozen universities entered vehicles designed to minimize emissions while traveling from MIT in Massachusetts to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. There were steam cars, turbine cars, all-electric vehicles, and some fueled with propane. The entrants also included cars running on unleaded gasoline and incorporating, without charge, prototype catalytic converters from Engelhard.
The cars with the catalytic converters demonstrated the best combination of commercial practicality and emissions reduction — releasing 90 percent less hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide to the atmosphere than their non-catalytic counterparts. However, nitrogen oxide control with exhaust gas recirculation was inadequate. A unique solution to this problem was discovered — the three-way catalytic converter, which permitted destruction of the three exhaust pollutants in a single catalytic bed.
The momentum behind commercialization of the catalytic converter continued to build with the 1970 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act. Working with Volvo, Mooney and his colleagues introduced the three-way catalytic converter, proving it in large part on a 1973 Volvo station wagon. Bearing the names of Mooney and Keith on its patent, the three-way converter was first included in assembly-line cars for the 1976 model year. In combination with an oxygen sensor, the single catalytic bed in this type of converter greatly reduces emission of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
The Society of Automotive Engineers considers the three-way catalytic converter one of the ten most important innovations in the history of the automobile. Mooney’s role in this singular social and technological advance has also been recognized by the Finnish Academies of Technology, which awarded him and Keith the prestigious Walter Ahlstrom Prize in 2001. This honor recognizes advances in the industrial use of energy and natural resources that also contribute to social well-being.
Over the years, as some 17 patents attest, Mooney has continued to expand the potential of catalytic technology for reducing emissions. One of his recent patents applies to small two-stroke engines, the type that powers chainsaws and leaf blowers. Among the worst of internal-combustion polluters, such engines can be very inefficient as well, wasting as much as 30 percent of the gasoline used to fuel them.
Mooney explains that his catalytic solution not only reduces hydrocarbon emissions by 60 to 70 percent. “You also get much greater fuel efficiency and a 40 percent boost in power — now that’s really something,” he says with undiminished enthusiasm for technology that has made the air cleaner for all the people of our world.