It is increasingly common for the catalytic converters on cars to be stolen. This is because the precious metal that forms a key element of the converters has become more expensive. That element is a rare one called rhodium which is, by weight, reportedly the most expensive element on the planet, beating out gold and silver and other precious metals. It is one of the rarest, just one part in a billion, compared with 5% for iron.
The converter on regular fuel vehicles is simple: a stainless steel shell surrounds a ceramic honeycomb monolith— that monolith is coated with three important precious metals: platinum, palladium, and rhodium.
As the car’s exhaust passes through this honeycomb the metals heat up and act as catalysts: turning carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons to H20 and C02, and nitrous oxides into nitrogen and Carbon-dioxide.
Because these metals, and especially rhodium are so stable and durable they can perform this function over an extremely long lifetime of the car part—suffering very little loss in performance.
So why has the price of rhodium spiked, reaching a peak in March of this year? You guessed it, the pandemic.
Closed mines and refineries created a huge deficit in rhodium, palladium, and platinum supply even as demand was increasing around the world
And if car manufacturers can’t buy these metals from mines—they’ll get it somewhere else: recycling.
Recycled platinum group metals account for a large portion of the precious group metals used by American car manufacturers, which means it’s big business. That business translates to opportunity on the street:
They’re no longer crimes that are violence, they’re no longer crimes against persons which pulls them from the violent crime status to a property crime. Resources can’t be put to the property crimes like they’re being given attention to the violent crimes. And without specific markings on the catalytic converters themselves there’s no way to determine if Cat 1 vs Cat 2 came off of your car or someone else’s car.
Hybrid cars apparently run at lower temperatures and thus use more rhodium, making them a prime target. At one time, the Toyota Prius was targeted because apparently its converters were easy to remove. But more recently the high prices have made it worthwhile for thieves to target other cars as well.