DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
WHEN CONGRESS MANDATED A 90 PERCENT CUT IN AUTO EMISSIONS, ALMOST NO ONE THOUGHT IT COULD BE ACHIEVED. THE INVENTORS OF THE CATALYTIC CONVERTER PROVED OTHERWISE.
By Tim Palucka
WITH THE PASSAGE OF THE CLEAN AIR Act of 1970, Congress threw down a gauntlet similar in spirit to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Both were bold strokes that placed a burden squarely on the shoulders of the nation’s scientists and engineers. And both looked impossible.
In the race to the moon the United States had only recently developed a rocket that could get off the launch pad with no cargo, let alone make it to the moon with humans aboard. In the race to clean up the air, no one knew if the goal, a 90 percent reduction in automobile emissions from pre1968 levels by the 1975 model year, was even remotely possible. Moreover, Americans loved their thirsty automobiles; the petroleum industry depended on toxic lead in gasoline to increase octane; and automakers didn’t want to add another costly device, especially one that would interfere with the cars’ performance. As Ernest Starkman, vice president in charge of the environmental-activities staff of General Motors, put it, “The cleaner the car is from a pollution standpoint, the harder it is to make it run well.”
Like the race to the moon, this would take a crash program of research and development. The 1975 automobiles would be introduced in September 1974, so there would have to be a factory running at full speed turning out millions of the emissionscleaning devices before then. The car companies would have to start tooling up for manufacturing these models early in 1974, so all specifications would have to be finalized late in 1973, meaning that all development and testing would have to be done by earlier that year. The makers had two or three years to go from basic research to manufacturing. At Corning Glass Works, one of the principal competitors in the race, the time between basic research and mass production of complex products was typically around 17 years.
Read the rest of the story:
AmericanHeritage.com / DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE