John J. Mooney, an inventor of the catalyst, the small and ubiquitous device that makes engines that drive everything from cars to lawnmowers less environmentally friendly and economical, died on June 16 at his home in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He was 90 years old.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said his daughter Elizabeth Mooney Convery.
Mr. Mooney was a high school graduate who worked as a gas company employee when his colleagues encouraged him to go to college. After completing his bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, he received 17 patents during his 43-year career at Engelhard Corporation in Iselin, New Jersey (now the Catalyst Division of the German chemical manufacturer BASF).
Among them was the three-way catalytic converter, which the Society of Automotive Engineers described as one of the 10 most important innovations in the history of the automobile.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the exhaust emissions of the latest cars, sport utility vehicles, trucks and buses produce about 99 percent less smog-producing exhaust and soot than those of the 1970 models.
The development of catalytic converters was driven by federal regulations that required the production of gasoline without lead, which significantly impaired the effectiveness of existing environmental protection devices. While early converters were able to reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions, the 1970 Clean Air Act set limits on another pollutant, nitrogen oxides.
Mr. Mooney and Carl D. KeithA chemist who worked with his Engelhard colleagues Antonio Eleazar and Phillip Messina successfully experimented with a Volvo station wagon in 1973 to develop a catalyst that reduced all three types of emissions.
Simply put, the device filtered the exhaust through tiny passages in a ceramic honeycomb coated with a combination of different oxides, platinum and rhodium. It was introduced on the assembly line in 1976.
The installation of a computer-assisted feedback connection to the converter resulted in fuel savings of over 12 percent. Similar technology was later applied to a number of devices, including mining machines, motorcycles, and wood stoves.
Mr. Mooney’s most recent patent in 1993 was awarded for a converter that reduced the emissions of chainsaws and leaf blowers by up to 40 percent and at the same time improved fuel efficiency.
Joel Bloom, president of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said in a recent statement that Mr. Mooney, a 1960 graduate, was “a brilliant engineer, a groundbreaking inventor, and a valued mentor for many.”
John Joseph Mooney was born on April 6, 1930 in Paterson, New Jersey, to Denis Mooney, a lineman for Public Service Electric & Gas, and Mary (Hegarty) Mooney, a nurse.
After high school, he worked for PSE & G (“I was basically an employee,” he said), but then enrolled at Seton Hall University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry.
After serving in the nuclear test site at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, he earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) and later a master’s degree in marketing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Although I liked my chemistry courses well enough, I always had a practical inclination,” he said once. “I like to make things happen, and that’s exactly what engineers do – they take basic research and make things possible.”
In 1960 he moved to Englehard, where he initiated a process for producing hydrogen from liquid ammonia, which the Air Force used to inflate weather balloons more efficiently.
In 2002, Mr. Mooney and Mr. Keith received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President George W. Bush for their “incredible effectiveness in containing smog and eliminating some of the most harmful effects of the internal combustion engine on the environment and human life. “In 2014, Mr. Mooney was awarded the Science and Technology Medal by the Research & Development Council in New Jersey.
Mr. Mooney was President of the Institute for Environmental and Energy Technology and Policy worked with the United Nations to encourage African countries to ban leaded gasoline.
He retired from Engelhard in 2003.
In addition to his daughter Elizabeth, Mr. Mooney survives his wife Claire (Ververs) Mooney. his son John D. Mooney; three other daughters, Marybeth Stachowiak, Noreen Dominguez and Kathleen Mooney; 14 grandchildren; and his sister Kathleen Heintz.
“He is one of the few people who can claim to have contributed to the automotive industry, which has saved the lives of millions and prolonged the lives of countless people around the world with clean air,” said Rasto Brezny, managing director of The Manufacturers of the Emission Control Association, which Mr. Mooney once headed, said via email.
Mr. Mooney, his daughter Elizabeth said, “had a technical mind.”
“He would say,” If you don’t think there is a solution, you simply haven’t asked the right questions. “