Clean-Air Products and Solutions | Life is Breathtaking | Corning

Our History: 50 Years of Cleaner Air

Our History

Most people today are aware of the health hazards associated with poor air quality. But for a long time, little attention was paid to the consequences of industrial activity, to smoke and pollutants from coal-burning factories and to cars and trucks crowding city streets and highways, releasing an uncontrolled amount of pollutants. 

Until two major events made it very clear that things had to change to save people’s lives.

The Great Smog of 1952 covered London with a thick blanket of airborne pollutants. Its choking effects led to the deaths of 4,000 to 6,000 people over the course of five days.[1], [2] The year after, New York City disappeared under a toxic blanket of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Reports connected the week of smog to 260 deaths.[3]

The danger coming from air pollutants could no longer be denied. It took the U.S. government several attempts, but the Clean Air Act of 1970 marked a major shift in controlling sources of air pollution across several sectors.

The U.S. Clean Air Act: A Turning Point in Protecting our Environment

Months after President Nixon proclaimed 1970 the year of the environment, Congress passed the Clean Air Act – setting national air quality and vehicle emission standards – and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement those standards. The 1970 Act required a 90% reduction in emissions from new cars by 1975, with no exceptions (European countries implemented similar regulations only in 1992). The new air-quality standards strictly limited levels of six pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead. To reach these regulations automakers had to design vehicles that could run on unleaded gasoline and incorporate a new device—the catalytic converter—to reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons from car exhaust by 90%.

The pressure was on to create a new technology to meet these clean-air requirements. Corning answered the challenge in 1971 with the first extruded ceramic substrate based on a material called cordierite, a high temperature, low expansion magnesium aluminosilicate ceramic. Virtually every automotive company in the world today relies on Corning’s cellular ceramic technology invention to control exhaust emissions. Our manufacturing footprint, which started in 1973 with one automotive plant in Erwin, NY has grown to multiple facilities in the United States, Germany, South Africa and China.

In 1978, Corning developed the first cellular ceramic wall-flow particulate filter to remove soot from diesel emissions. Both of these products, substrates and particulate filters, are manufactured by the company's patented extrusion process and form the core of world-class emissions control systems all around the world.

Would you like to learn the role GM’s president Ed Cole played in the process of developing substrates for catalytic convertors? This story from the American Ceramic Society Bulletin’s April 2020 issue includes details on the technical challenge and on the people behind Corning’s catalytic converter breakthrough.


Read more about the “Hidden ceramics that impact the world”.


[1] National Geographic. “Dec 4, 1952 CE: Great Smog of 1952.” Accessed April 29, 2022.

[2] Excell, J. (22 Dec 2015) “The lethal effects of London fog.” BBC. Accessed April 29, 2022.

[3] Tracton, S. (20 Dec 2012) “The killer London smog event of December, 1952: a reminder of deadly smog events in U.S.” The Washington Post. Accessed April 29, 2022.