Peak Palladium: Thieves Are Going After Catalytic Converters From Hybrid Cars

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CC BY 2.0. Catalytic converter is missing in the middle/Seth Sawyers on Flickr

The rare metal is now worth US $1,700 an ounce.

People talk all the time that there isn't enough lithium or rare earths for electric cars, but cars' conventional internal combustion engines have their own problems with rare and expensive metals. For the last 45 years cars have had catalytic converters to turn toxic exhaust into slightly less toxic exhaust. One of the elements used to oxidize unburned hydrocarbons (turning it into CO2) is palladium, which is used in expensive hybrids like Prii or Lexi. Palladium is really expensive these days, so it has become a problem. According to Neil Hume in the Financial Times,

Looking to profit from soaring palladium prices — which hit a record high above $1,700 an ounce this week — thieves in the UK capital have stolen nearly 2,900 catalytic converters in the first six months of the year, up from 1,674 in the whole of 2018, according to data from the Metropolitan Police. The market-savvy car thieves typically target hybrids because their catalysts contain more metal. They then sell the devices to illegal scrap dealers for cash.

Hume uses an interesting aphorism, that "the cure for high prices is high prices" – when something becomes valuable, more people go looking for it. But these materials are expensive because mining them requires moving a huge amount of earth to get the tiny quantities.

People have said that an iPhone starts with 75 pounds of material, but I wonder what a car starts with, between the bauxite and the iron ore and whatever the palladium and platinum are dug out of. No matter what is powering it, cars consume massive amounts of material to move a hundred and fifty pounds of flesh, usually just a couple of miles. It makes no sense.