The next time you hear someone making a crack about New Jersey, repeating some well-worn stereotype about toxic exhaust fumes being the state's main natural resource, tell them about John Mooney.
What New Jersey's detractors probably don't realize is the nation's air would likely be a lot dirtier if not for a device that Mooney - New Jersey born and raised - helped invent.
In 1974, Mooney, of Wyckoff, N.J., and his colleague, Carl Keith, invented the three-way catalytic converter, the part of a car's exhaust system that converts dangerous toxins into less harmful compounds before they enter the atmosphere.
Twenty-five years ago this fall, a batch of 1977 Volvos hit the market as the first cars using three-way converters, which replaced earlier, less effective converters.
"It's nice to think that I worked on something that helped a lot of people," said Mooney, who grew up in Paterson, N.J., and moved to Wyckoff in 1959. "When I go to bed at night, [the thought] puts a smile on my face."
Mooney, 71, invented the converter for the Iselin-based Engelhard Corp., where he is director of technology development and business programs.
The three-way catalytic converter looks like your standard automobile part. It's metal on the outside, and about 5 inches in diameter, with a honeycomb structure on the inside, where the catalytic reactions take place.
Now a standard item
Now a standard part of all gasoline-fueled cars and light-duty vehicles in America, Europe, and Japan, the converter oxidizes poisonous nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide.
Although earlier converters were effective in reducing hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, Mooney's invention was the first to convert nitrogen oxides, the most dangerous of the three compounds. Because the three-way converter doesn't work with lead, its invention helped phase out the use of leaded gasoline in America.
Mooney blushes when asked about his invention's impact on health and the environment over the past quarter-century. The slender, energetic engineer is more comfortable giving an impromptu chemistry lesson in his living room. He gestures excitedly while explaining complex chemical reactions and describing experiments.
"It was a challenging experience," Mooney said of the four years it took him and Keith to invent the three-way converter. "You had to look at things inside out and upside down. Nothing ever flowed perfectly."
Work started in 1970
Mooney began work on the converter in 1970, shortly after President Richard M. Nixon announced new auto emission standards for 1975. Engelhard, which manufactured catalytic converters, needed a new product to meet the higher standards.
By one industry estimate, Mooney's converter has prevented 500 million tons of carbon monoxide and more than 50 million tons each of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from entering the air worldwide.
"In terms of reducing pollution, it's one of the most important inventions of the 20th century," said Clifford Weisel, an associate professor of environmental community medicine at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at Rutgers University. "It reduces emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, which are the precursors for ozone," Weisel said. "It reduced ozone exposure."
Cathy Milbourn, a senior press officer with the Environmental Protection Agency, said cars are 95 percent environmentally cleaner today than they were 25 years ago because of Mooney's converter.
'A major positive'
Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said Mooney's invention has cut automobile emissions by at least 70 percent. "The air would be much dirtier considering we're driving farther and farther now," Tittel said. "It's been a major positive."
Initially, Mooney said, some oil and gasoline companies that didn't want to give up on lead fuel resisted his converter. He recalls with a laugh a Wall Street Journal article that criticized his invention.
"It said, 'Uh-oh, here comes the converter.' They said it was a $20 million mistake. They were wrong."
Mooney has received the Walter Ahlstrom Prize for Engineering from the Finnish Academies of Technology this year. It's one of several honors he's received over the past few years recognizing his invention's contribution to automotive engineering and environmental health.
In 1999, Mooney received the Arthur Dehon Little Award, the top prize given by the American Chemical Engineering Society. Last year, he was one of several recipients of the auto industry's Clean Air Award, which was presented at the Capitol in Washington.
Mooney is especially proud of the Ahlstrom prize because it's an international award. He said he's using some of the $30,000 prize money to set up college funds for his 14 grandchildren.
Mooney credits Claire, his wife of 46 years, as his "secret weapon," always there to listen to tales of exciting breakthroughs and frustrating setbacks in the laboratory.
"She has been my sounding board, and she's been there for when I've been struggling," Mooney said. "She has helped me keep my focus."
Mooney's inventing partner, Carl Keith, a former Summit, N.J. resident, is retired and living in Marco Island, Fla.
Although Mooney is happy to be recognized for the three-way converter's impact on clean air, he isn't content to be defined by past accomplishments.
At Engelhard, he is working on converters to eliminate soot and other toxins from diesel engine exhaust. He recently led a team that developed converters for lawn and garden equipment, such as leaf blowers and weed whackers, and he'd like to see them become standard on lawn mowers.
Mooney has also traveled to Asian countries that still use leaded gasoline, trying to persuade government and business leaders to switch to three-way converters and unleaded fuel. He said China, India, Thailand, and the Philippines are among the countries he's visited that have started using three-way converters.
"You can't believe how awful the environment was in some of those places," Mooney said. When he first visited Bangkok in 1995, Mooney said, people riding motorcycles wore surgical masks. "The air quality was so bad."
He said he's been heartened by recent trips to Southeast Asia, because many countries are making progress in cleaning up air pollution.
Though he could retire at any time, Mooney said it's not a likely prospect.
"I can't give it up," he said of his work. "It's not the money, I don't need the money. It's that there's too many challenges to walk away from. I think about what's coming next, and I think, 'Let me be part of that.'"