Nov 11

For someone who was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2002 for his and his colleague’s impact on curbing smog caused by internal combustion engines and protecting the environment and human health in the process, John J. Mooney almost missed his mark.

After graduating high school, Mooney went to work as a clerk at a gas company. He might have stayed where he was, but colleagues urged him to go to college. He did, earning a BS in chemistry and a master’s in chemical engineering and later marketing. Mooney also received 17 patents and is credited with being an inventor of the catalytic convertor, a device that makes engines for everything from cars to lawnmowers less polluting and more fuel efficient.

Mooney’s explanation? “I like to make things happen, and that’s what engineers do—they take the basic science and make things happen.”

As the SmartState Endowed Chair in Innovation + Commercialization who teaches students where science and business converge, this statement warms my heart!

Tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and buses were destroying the world’s air quality. The 1970 Clean Air Act and other regulations imposed limits on emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. Mooney and Carl D. Keith, a chemist, collaborated with two colleagues and created a catalytic converter that reduced all three types of emissions. The three-way catalytic converter, described by the Society of Automotive Engineers as being among the 10 most important innovations in the history of the automobile, was introduced on assembly lines in 1976.

Today, the EPA estimates that modern vehicles produce 99 percent less smog-producing exhaust and soot than those from the 1970s. What an accomplishment!

Mooney passed away on June 16, 2020, at the age of 90. He is remembered as a brilliant engineer, trailblazing inventor and esteemed mentor, liked to share this observation: “If you don’t think there’s a solution, then you just haven’t asked the right questions.” Learn more about this Dearly Departed here>

Dearly Departed profiles are the musings of SC Innovates’ Director and SmartState Endowed Chair Laura B. Cardinal. Dr. Cardinal teaches a series of courses in Strategic Management of Technology + Innovation, wherein each course adds to the unique fusion of innovation, business strategy, science, and technology. Her courses are offered through the UofSC Darla Moore School of Business Professional MBA Program.

Laura B. Cardinal, PhD