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U of M researchers looking to reduce catalytic converter thefts awarded $10.6 million grant

U of M researchers looking to reduce catalytic converter thefts awarded $10.6 million grant
U of M researchers looking to reduce catalytic converter thefts awarded $10.6 million grant 02:07

MINNEAPOLIS -- University of Minnesota researchers think they can help reduce the number of catalytic converter thefts.

The key: A cheaper alternative to the precious metals thieves are targeting.

"It's fun and all these emotions drive us to do better research," said Tziaming Omn, a University of Minnesota researcher.

In a laboratory on the U of M campus, researchers are using complex equipment to find a solution to a complex problem.

In a sense, they're trying to make catalytic converters less attractive to thieves.

"There's platinum, rhodium, palatium, all precious metals that do different chemistries that help clean up the exhaust from a car," said Paul Dauenhauer, University of Minnesota researcher.

Professor Dauenhauer and his 15-person crew want to replace those targeted metals with something much cheaper but just as efficient, like copper. The secret is in something that looks like computer chips.

"We can make the surface, which is a low-cost metal like copper, behave like a precious metal," said Dauenhauer.

Results over the past few years have been so positive that last month the U.S. Department of Energy gave them a $10.6 million grant to continue their work.

The researchers said the recycled copper replacement is also more friendly to the environment. 

"I would say this is a new class of catalyst that's never been looked at before," said On.

Which is why they're now calling them "catalytic condensers."And as the technology advances, Dauenhauer believes it can be used for much more than just catalytic converters.

"We also use them in the production in renewable hydrogen from solar and wind. Or to make fertilizers like ammonia that people use in agriculture. These are all made with precious metals. Our goal is to replace all of those," said Dauenhauer.

There is still more work to do, but the team believes something this small could lead to big solutions.

"We are already at the point where we have a device that we can put into a system and see it function and be controllable in a way that's never been possible before," said Dauenhauer. "We can build an entire world that's carbon-free at low-cost energy."

Dauenhauer said the next step is to see how well this works on a larger scale.

He's hopeful the catalytic condenser will be available within the next 5 years.

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