Science Questions

Why do cars smell like rotten eggs after a while?

Sat, 23rd Sep 2006

Part of the show Catalysts for Cleaner Environments and Future Energy

Question

Andy on the A120 asked:

Why do cars smell like rotten eggs after a while? Is this down to catalytic converters?

Answer

This is not exactly a myth but is something that's becoming less of an issue nowadays. The reason that that happens is that there is sulphur in fuel and when sulphur burns in oxygen it forms sulphur dioxide. This only really happens in a petrol engine, which can operate under fuel-rich or fuel-lean conditions. In fuel-lean conditions there's quite a lot of oxygen so the sulphur in the fuel gets oxidised to sulphates. This is a real pain because this clogs up the catalyst and builds up on the surface of the monolith. But when you start a car, this is the point when you have fuel-rich conditions. This is going to convert the sulphate that has built up on the catalyst into H2S, which is hydrogen sulphide. That's the kind of eggy smell that you get out. But this is also why we're getting a lot more low-sulphur fuels nowadays and to be honest it's a lot less of a problem than it used to be.

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