Illnesses caused by air pollution are the third-leading cause of death in developing nations, and over 5 million people worldwide die every year from air pollution exposure. Catalytic converters, the most widely used air purification devices, convert the toxic gases and pollutants produced by fuel combustion into benign chemicals before the exhaust is released into the atmosphere. However, catalytic converters are very expensive because the catalysts required for the cleaning reactions are precious metals, which account for 70-90% of the cost of manufacturing the converters. Additionally, they are inefficient, because the precious metal particles are embedded randomly in the catalytic coating and, therefore, some never come into contact with the pollutants they are meant to clean.
Researchers at the Wyss Institute and Harvard SEAS are developing a new type of catalytic coating that is inspired by the honeycomb-like nanostructure of a butterfly’s wing. This underlying structure creates channels through which air can flow unimpeded, and the precise placement of catalysts on the structure maximizes the efficiency of the catalysis reactions while decreasing the amount of precious metals needed by ~80%. These coatings can be easily integrated into the existing $20B catalytic converter industry, and their lower cost could extend the market for catalytic converters to lower-income countries and consumers for home air purification use.
The Wyss Institute is currently exploring commercialization options for this technology.