Smog scientists get presidential award

President Bush shares a light moment with the three scientists awarded the National Medal of Technology for their work on  catalytic converters. From left are Ronald Lewis, Irwin Lachman and Rodney Bagley.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three scientists who helped this car-crazy world breathe a whole lot easier have been given the nation’s highest technology award.

Their creation — a ceramic honeycomb that oxidizes auto emissions — has kept an estimated 3 billion tons of toxic pollutants out of the atmosphere over the last 30 years.

“People don’t realize how bad it was when millions of cars were spewing out deadly fumes,” said retired engineer Rodney Bagley. “Many of the cities were almost unbreathable” in the 1960s.

The soda can-sized device developed by Bagley, Irwin Lachman and Ronald Lewis at Corning Inc. in 1972 and 1973 made air pollution control practical for the first time. Its paper-thin walls were coated with precious-metal catalysts that turned lung-choking gases streaming through automotive exhausts systems into water vapor, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

President Bush awarded each of the men a National Medal of Technology during a ceremony Monday at the White House.

Theirs was possibly the most significant contribution to air pollution control, but one that “needs time to develop ... before all those years of use shows up as a benefit,” Lachman said.

First fitted in 1975-model cars, the honeycombs are now used in 95 percent of the world’s autos with catalytic converters. By 2007, all new diesel vehicles on U.S. highways will need to be equipped with the smog-busting devices.

Lachman and Lewis came up with the “miracle material” — a mixture of clay, talc and alumina, an oxide of aluminum — capable of withstanding immense heat and cooling rapidly without cracking. Bagley devised the manufacturing process to create thousands of the cells.