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Student Workbook

LV09
Ignition
Systems (1)

LV09/SWB
Student Workbook for Technical Certificates
Light Vehicle Maintenance and Repair

MODULE LV09
IGNITION SYSTEMS (1)

Contents
Page Page

Ignition systems: 3 Contact Breaker Points: 20


Contact breaker type ignition system 4 Condenser 22
Transistorised type 4
Transistorised type with electronic Dwell Periods: 23
spark advance 5 Dwell period - correct 23
Distributor-less and direct ignition Dwell period - too small 23
systems 5 Dwell period - too large 24

System Components: 6 Ignition Timing: 25


Battery 6 Governor advancer 26
Progress check 1 8 Mechanical advance system
Ignition coil 9 components 27
Self induction effect 9 Mechanical advance - using
Mutual induction effect 10 centrifugal force 28
Progress check 2 12 Vacuum advancer 29
Ballast resistor 14
Exercise 1 15 Spark Plugs 31

Distributor: 16 Combustion Process: 33


Distributor cap, rotor arm and ignition Heat flow 34
leads 17 Spark plug heat range 34
Progress check 3 19

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Ignition systems

The ignition system is needed to deliver a high voltage spark that will ignite
the air/fuel mixture within the combustion chamber. For the engine to run
effectively, three elements are needed:

• good air/fuel mixture

• high compression pressure

• high voltage spark and correct ignition timing.

Due to the high compression pressure that is generated within the combustion
chamber, the spark that is delivered needs to ignite the air/fuel mixture. For
this reason the ignition system must deliver an appropriate voltage to the
spark plug to allow this process to take place. The point at which the spark is
delivered must also be adjusted to take into account engine speed and load.
This means the relationship between crankshaft angle and the spark plug
firing is constantly changing. In order for the engine to run, the spark must be
delivered at the correct time in the compression stroke for each of the pistons.
For this reason the ignition system needs to be reliable and able to operate
under all engine conditions.

Various types of ignition systems have been used. During this phase, we will
focus on the contact breaker type ignition system and its components, as it
assists in the understanding of modern ignition systems. We will also give an
overview of the ignition systems that will be covered in subsequent phases.

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Contact breaker type ignition system

A mechanically operated system, which uses contact breaker points to


intermittently disrupt the current flow through the primary circuit of the ignition
coil.

Transistorised type

With this type, the current flowing in the primary circuit of the ignition coil is
intermittently disrupted electronically, removing the need for contact breaker
points.

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Transistorised type with electronic spark advance

The major difference between this type and the standard transistorised
ignition system is that the engine’s electronic control unit replaces the vacuum
and governor centrifugal advancers.

Distributor-less and direct ignition systems

This system eliminates the need for a distributor by delivering high voltage
directly to the spark plugs. This is achieved by using multiple ignition coils,
one for each spark plug.

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System Components
Battery

The battery is used to supply electrical current to the ignition system. It stores
the electricity in the form of chemical energy and is constantly charged and
discharged as the vehicle is used.

The battery consists of positive and negative electrodes, which take the form
of plates. The plates are constructed from either lead or lead-derived
material, and are submersed in diluted sulphuric acid (electrolyte). Internally,
the battery is then split into six separate cells, each consisting of several
positive and negative plates. The positive and negative plates are then
placed alternately in the cell. The positive plates are then connected together
with plate straps, as are the negative plates.

Fibreglass matting is placed between the negative and positive plates to act
as an insulator. Each cell generates electromotive force equivalent to
approximately 2.1 volts, as these cells are connected in series approximately
12v is generated from a normal automotive battery.

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The battery case is designed to withstand the corrosive nature of the
electrolyte. It is divided into six compartments, and these compartments then
form the six cells.

In the top of the battery case vent plugs are fitted to allow hydrogen gas to be
vented, while preventing the escape of sulphuric acid mist from the battery.
Both hydrogen gas and sulphuric acid mist is generated when the battery is
charging. This is due to the heat generated by the chemical reaction in the
battery. As the battery is constantly charged and discharged, small amounts
of electrolyte will be lost.

A look at the level indicators on the side of the battery will enable the
electrolyte level to be checked. If the battery case does not have level
indicators, the vent plugs must be removed and a visual inspection of the
electrolyte level will need to be carried out.

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Progress check 1
Answer the following questions:

1. What two substances are mixed together to form electrolyte?

2. What is the purpose of a capacitor within an ignition system?

3. What three elements are required to make an engine run effectively?

4. Battery cells are linked together

a) in series

b) in parallel.

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Ignition coil

Ignition coils can take many forms, depending on the ignition system used.
Within this phase, we will look at the types of coil used with the contact
breaker type ignition system, but a brief overview of the other types will be
given. Explanations will be given with regard to construction and operation.

Self induction effect

A magnetic field is generated when current flows through a coil. As a result,


an electromotive force is generated, which creates a magnetic flux in a
direction that impedes the generation of magnetic flux in the coil.

When electrical current is introduced into the coil, it does not flow immediately.
Instead, it takes a certain period of time for the current within the coil to rise.
The higher the counter electromotive force, the longer the delay will be for full
current flow. When the current within the coil is suddenly cut off, an
electromotive force is generated in the direction the current is flowing. In this
way when current starts to flow in a coil, or when current is cut off, the coil
generates electromotive force, but in differing directions.

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Mutual induction effect

Current flow

When two coils are arranged in a line, and the amount of current flowing
through the primary coil is changed, an electromotive force is generated in the
secondary coil in a direction that impedes the change in the primary coil’s
magnetic flux. This is called the mutual induction effect.

If current is constantly flowing through the primary coil then the magnetic flux
will not change. At this point there will be no electromotive force generated in
the secondary coil.

No current flow

If the switch is now turned off, the current flow through the primary coil will be
interrupted. This will cause the magnetic flux that has been generated in the
primary coil to disappear suddenly. This will cause electromotive force to be
generated in the secondary coil in a direction that impedes the decay of the
magnetic flux.

If the switch is again turned on, an electromotive force will be generated in the
secondary coil. This electromotive force will be generated in a direction that
impedes the generation of a magnetic flux by the primary coil.

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When breaker points are used to suddenly interrupt the flow of the current in
the primary coil, the mutual induction between the primary and secondary
coils will cause high voltage to be generated. Various factors control how
much electromotive force is generated:

• amount of magnetic flux

• ratio of windings between the primary and secondary coils

• rate at which the magnetic flux changes.

For maximum generation of electromotive force, the current flowing in the


primary coil should be as large as possible. This current should then be
interrupted as quickly as possible.

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Progress check 2
Answer the following questions:

Secondary coil Primary coil

S N

Low voltage
12v

Ignition coil

Contact points
closed
1. What is the purpose of the contact breaker points?

2 What effect does the iron core have on the magnetic force generated
by the primary coil when the points are closed?

3. Does current flow through the secondary circuit whilst the points are
closed?

4. Which switch normally supplies current to the ignition primary circuit?

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5 What normally causes the contact breaker points to open?

6 What happens in the primary circuit as the contact breaker points


open?

7. What occurs in the secondary coil when the magnetic force generated
in the primary coil decreases as the points open?

Secondary coil Primary coil

S N

High voltage Induced


30kV voltage 500v

Contact points
open
8. How many volts are typically generated in the secondary circuit?

9. How does the high secondary voltage affect the primary circuit?

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Ballast resistor

There are two main reasons for fitting a ballast resistor in series in the primary
circuit. The first is to ensure we have a powerful enough spark at the spark
plugs during high engine speeds and the second is to improve starting.

The more windings in a coil, the higher the back EMF will be. Back EMF is an
electrical force that acts against current flow build up. As it acts against
current flow build up, it slows down the time it takes for maximum current flow
to occur. This in turn would lead to a reduction in secondary winding voltage if
maximum current flow has not occurred by the time the points open, i.e. high
engine speeds. To reduce the amount of back EMF, fewer primary windings
are wound in the coil and to ensure the resistance in the circuit is still the
same a resistor is placed in series, (a ballast resistor). Without the resistor,
excessive current flow would occur reducing the life of the coil. This way the
same amount of current flows in the circuit, but current flow build up occurs at
a faster rate and so even at high engine speeds there is still enough time to
generate the very high voltage in the secondary winding (a resistor is not a
coil so does not produce back EMF).

The ballast resistor improves start ability. The reason for this is that the
current available to flow through the primary winding is reduced because the
starter motor is putting a heavy drain on the battery during cranking reducing
available voltage. A way of increasing the current flow in the primary winding
is to bypass the ballast resistor, (reducing the resistance in the circuit) during
cranking. This allows more current to flow into the primary winding, hence
increasing the output voltage of the secondary winding which in turn produces
a powerful spark.

Typical ignition ballast resistor value is 1.5 ohms. Typical resistance of a


ballast resistor ignition coil is 1.5 ohms.

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Exercise 1

1. Complete the two wiring diagrams above

2. What is the purpose of the ballast resistor?

3. What is the current flow in amps through the ignition coil circuit when
the points are closed (assume battery voltage to be 12v)?

3. What is the voltage at the supply voltage terminal (ignition switch side)
of the ignition coil with the points closed?

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Distributor

The purpose of the distributor is to deliver the high voltage generated by the
coil to the spark plugs. It must do this effectively, allowing for variations that
will occur due to engine speed and engine load. To enable this to happen,
various components are housed in the distributor unit. The distributor also
houses the contact breaker points. These points are used to interrupt the
primary circuit of the ignition coil, causing the generation of high current.

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Distributor cap, rotor arm and ignition leads

The distributor cap and rotor arm are used to distribute the high voltage
generated by the ignition coil to the plugs, via the high-tension cords. The
high voltage generated by the ignition coil passes through the high-tension
cords and enters the distributor cap at the centre electrode.

The voltage is then transferred from the centre contact piece to the rotor arm
and then from the rotor arm to the side electrode. From the side electrode, it
then passes down another high-tension cord which is connected to the spark
plug. As the distributor turns at half engine speed, a single spark is delivered
to each individual spark plug for every two revolutions of the crankshaft.

As high voltage is constantly travelling through each of these components, it is


important that sufficient insulation and conduction performance is maintained
at all times. Regular maintenance on this system is needed to achieve
optimum performance.

To enable the distributor cap to meet the insulation needs of the system, it is
constructed from epoxy resin, which has high heat resistance and insulation
properties.

The centre electrode is made from carbon and the side electrodes from
aluminium. There is an air gap provided between the side electrodes and the
rotor arm to remove any possibility of interference. If dust or moisture is
allowed to enter the distributor cap then arcing may occur between the
electrodes, causing an engine misfire.

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Distributor cap

High tension leads


Ohm meter probes

The high-tension leads carry the high voltage from the distributor cap to the
spark plug. As with the previous two items, it is essential that the insulation is
adequate so there is no reduction in current flow. One problem associated
with the distributor cap and the high-tension cords, is high resistance either
within the high-tension cord, or at the connection point between them and the
distributor cap.

When testing the resistance either in the high-tension cords, or in the


connection between them and the distributor cap, a maximum of 25kΩ should
be registered on the ohmmeter. If the reading is in excess of 25kΩ, then all
connections should be checked, cleaned or items replaced.

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Progress check 3
Answer the following questions:

1. Why is it good practice to clean the side electrodes with sandpaper if


they become oxidised?

2. What is the purpose of a rotor arm within an ignition system?

3. What type of material is a distributor cap made from?

4. Identify from the list below the type of material the centre electrode is
made from

(a) carbon

(b) plastic

(c) steel

(d) glass fibre

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Contact Breaker Points

The contact breaker points consist of two tungsten contacts. These are a
fixed earth contact and an insulated movable contact - with a breaker arm
return spring to return the breaker point to the closed position. These are then
placed on the breaker plate. The points are opened and closed by the lobes
on the centre cam. The engine camshaft drives the cam of the distributor and
as explained previously, the cam of the distributor turns at half engine speed.
The number of cylinders in the engine governs the number of lobes on the
distributor cam (i.e. four cylinder engine four cam lobes, six cylinder engine six
cam lobes). For each revolution of the distributor cam, high voltage will be
sent to each of the spark plugs once. This means that on a four-cylinder
engine, the primary windings of the coil will be interrupted four times for every
one revolution of the distributor cam.

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The contact breaker points are one of the serviceable items that need to be
checked during periodic maintenance of the vehicle. Over a period of time,
the tungsten contacts become pitted or oxidised due to the high-tension
sparks arcing across the contacts as they open and close. This will cause an
increase in contact resistance, which will result in a decrease of current flow in
the primary coil. Incorrect alignment of the points will accelerate the
oxidisation process therefore care must be taken not to damage the points as
they are being fitted. As the points are fitted care must be taken not to
contaminate the contact surfaces with oil or grease, as this will also cause
arcing, reducing the voltage across the contact breaker points and reducing
the serviceable life of the points.

Wear of the rubbing block can also cause a reduction in current flow. As the
rubbing block wears, the point’s gap will reduce, causing constant arcing
when the points are open.

The result of this is that the primary current will not be interrupted
instantaneously and spark plug performance will be reduced. Therefore,
keeping the gap at the correct setting between the contacts will increase
ignition performance, and prolong the life of the contact breaker points. When
checking the gap between the points, it has long been accepted that placing
the correct feeler gauge between the contacts when they are open is an
acceptable method of adjustment. Recently, many manufacturers have
adapted a different method. Adjusting the rubbing block gap when the points
are closed reduces the possibility of contaminating the contact surfaces with
either oil or grease.

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Condenser

The condenser or capacitor is mounted either inside the distributor or on the


outer casing. It is connected in parallel with the breaker points and reduces
the arcing at the contacts.

As the points interrupt the primary current quickly, a very high voltage is
generated in the primary coil due to self-induction. This voltage is
approximately 500 volts. This high voltage generated causes arcing across
the contacts as the points open, delaying the interruption of the primary
current, and thus reducing ignition performance. The condenser reduces the
arcing by storing the excess voltage, and allowing the primary current to be
shut off quickly.

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Dwell Periods
Dwell period - correct

• dwell is the period in which current flows through the primary circuit

• compromise between engine at low speed and engine operating at high


speeds

• timing correct.

Dwell period - too small

• points gap too large

• heel of points too near cam (rubbing gap too small)

• points open earlier and close later

• coil charge time too short

• insufficient time to charge the ignition coil resulting in engine misfire at


higher engine speed

• timing advanced.

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Dwell period - too large

• points gap too small

• heel of points too far from cam (rubbing gap too large)

• points open later and close earlier

• coil charge time too long

• over saturation of the ignition coil leading to overheating / failure of the


ignition coil

• timing retarded.

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Ignition timing

To generate maximum torque and therefore maximum power, we must ensure


that the pressure generated during combustion pushes down on the piston
crown with maximum force when the connecting rod is at the most
advantageous angle to transfer this to the crank. On most engines this is 10
degrees after top dead centre. When the spark is created, it take time for the
flame to propagate and for the pressure to rise.

To compensate for this delay, we must create the spark early (well in advance
of 10 degrees after top dead centre). The amount of advance required alters
in accordance with engine speed. If the engine speed is increased, a given
amount of advance will no longer be sufficient as the piston speed is much
higher (the piston will be beyond the ideal position by the time maximum
pressure is created which will reduce the power). The centrifugal advance
mechanism (governor advancer) ensures that the timing of the spark is altered
correctly in accordance to any changes in engine speed.

If our vehicle is cruising with the engine under light load (flat road, 50 mph
partial throttle) the fuelling system will often lean off the mixture to generate
good fuel economy. A lean mixture burns slowly and therefore logic would
suggest that we will need to create the spark earlier. This is the purpose of
the vacuum advance mechanism.

If both the centrifugal advance and the vacuum advance are doing there
respective jobs correctly, maximum combustion pressure will always coincide
with an engine position of 10 degrees after top dead centre regardless of
engine speed and load.

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Ignition timing is checked using a timing light (strobe light). In order to check
ignition timing the engine must be running at a given speed (check
manufacturers specifications), usually deemed to be idling at approximately
500-800 rpm. When the engine is idling, neither the governor advancer nor
the vacuum advancer affects ignition timing. The top dead centre mark on the
crankshaft pulley should then be marked, as should the appropriate timing
mark on the timing cover. A timing light is then used to check that the two
lines match up. If the lines do not match up, timing should be adjusted.
Loosen the distributor retaining bolts and adjust its position relative to the
engine.

Care must be taken when adjusting the ignition timing, as incorrect adjustment
will cause engine-running problems. If the ignition timing is over advanced
then spontaneous combustion of the air/fuel mixture will take place early. This
will cause the combustion pressure to be abnormally high, leading to
excessive engine knock. Excessive engine knock will cause component
failure of valves and spark plugs for example, due to excessive heat
generation inside the combustion chamber. If the ignition is over retarded, the
consequences are less damaging to the engine. Spontaneous combustion
will take place late into the combustion stroke, causing the engine to lose
power. As there is not an excessive rise in pressure or heat within the
combustion chamber, component failure should not occur.

Governor advancer

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As the engine speed increases, the amount of time from delivery of the spark
to when spontaneous combustion needs to take place decreases. As the time
taken for the flame to propagate through the combustion chamber remains
relatively constant regardless of engine speed, the point at which the spark is
delivered needs to be advanced. If the spark is not advanced, spontaneous
combustion will take place late into the combustion stroke, causing problems
as outlined above.

To enable the distributor to adjust the ignition timing relative to engine speed,
a governor advancer is fitted. The governor advancer is constructed to allow
it to adjust the relative position of the distributor cam. The flyweights are
connected to the cam plate and the distributor shaft by pins (weight support
pins), which allow them to move about the pin axis. The cam plate is then
connected to the distributor shaft via a screw at the top of the cam plate. This
allows the cam plate to change its position relative to the distributor shaft

Mechanical advance system components

The distributor shaft rotates the cam plate, but as engine speed increases,
centrifugal force acts on the flyweights advancing the point at which the
contact breaker points are opened.

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Mechanical advance – using centrifugal force

To enable this to happen, one end of the governor spring is connected to the
spring support pin and the other is connected to the weight support pin.
During low engine speed, this enables the governor advancer to stop any
movement of the flyweights. As engine speed increases, the fly weights are
thrown out by centrifugal force and rotate around the weight support pins.

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This causes the cam plate to rotate and change its position relative to the
distributor shaft. The cam plate will stop rotating when a balance is reached
between the centrifugal force acting on the flyweights, and the spring force
being exerted by the governor spring. Maximum advance angle is also
controlled by the guide pin, which contacts the cam plate stopping it from
rotating any further. Through this process, the contact breaker points are
opened earlier, thus advancing the ignition timing. At very high engine speed,
advancement of the ignition timing is not needed. This is because high
turbulence within the cylinder reduces the flame propagation time.

Vacuum advancer

The vacuum advancer, like the governor advancer, adjusts the ignition timing
relative to the engine condition. Where the vacuum advancer differs from the
governor advancer is that it adjusts the ignition timing relative to engine load
and not engine speed.

When the load on the engine is small, the vacuum generated within the inlet
manifold increases because the throttle valve is only partially open. Under
this condition, the compression pressure within the combustion chamber is
low, thus the time taken for the flame propagation is increased.

If the load on the engine increases then the opposite is true. The vacuum
within the inlet manifold decreases, as the throttle valve is now fully open.
More air fuel mixture is drawn into the combustion chamber, raising the
pressure within the combustion chamber, causing the time taken for flame
propagation to decrease.

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Vacuum advancer

The vacuum advancer uses the vacuum from the inlet manifold to adjust the
ignition timing, so as to ensure that spontaneous ignition of the air/fuel mixture
happens at 10° after top dead centre, causing maximum pressure to be acting
on the piston at this time. This must happen regardless of the differing flame
propagation times associated with varying engine loads.

The vacuum advancer consists of vacuum chamber, diaphragm spring,


diaphragm, advancer rod and hook. This unit is then connected to the
breaker plate assembly by a pin. One side of the vacuum chamber is filled
with atmospheric pressure, and the other side has a vacuum applied to it from
the inlet manifold. When vacuum from the inlet manifold is applied to the
diaphragm, it pulls the advancer rod in. As the advancer rod hook is
connected to the breaker plate pin, the breaker plate is turned in the opposite
direction to the rotation of the distributor cam, thus advancing the ignition
timing.

The amount the ignition system is advanced is relative to the amount of


vacuum that is applied to the diaphragm within the vacuum advancer.

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Spark Plugs

The spark plugs are screwed into the cylinder head and protrude into the
combustion chamber. They receive high voltage from the secondary windings
of the ignition coil through the high-tension cords. The voltage travels down
the centre electrode and then jumps the air gap to the ground electrode.

As the high voltage jumps the air gap, a spark is created. It is this spark that
is used to ignite the air/fuel mixture. The spark that is generated by the spark
plug needs to be strong enough to ignite the air/fuel mixture, under all engine
conditions. There are various engine and component conditions that can
make it hard for this to be achieved. Increasing the spark plug air gap above
its normal setting will make it difficult for a strong enough spark to be
generated. This will occur as the spark plug wears, so maintenance of the
spark plug is essential.

As the compression pressure rises within the combustion chamber, the


voltage needed to generate an adequate sparks increases. This is normally
because the engine has been placed under high load. Cold air/fuel mixture
will also require a higher voltage to be generated. The centre electrode also
has a bearing on the voltage generation needed. Electrode temperature will
increase as engine speed increases. As electrode temperature increases, the
amount of voltage required decreases.

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Electrode shape discharge performance

Electrode shape can also affect the voltage discharge performance of the
spark plug. If it is either square or pointed, discharge performance is good.
When the spark plug becomes rounded due to wear, the discharge
performance of the spark plug reduces. Although a pointed electrode has the
most effective discharge performance, its serviceable life is shortened due to
quick wearing characteristics.

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Combustion Process

In order for the combustion process to take place, an ignition source must be
given to the air/fuel mixture. It is the role of the spark plug to use the high
voltage generated by the ignition coil to deliver an ignition source to the
combustion chamber. This achieved by the generation of a spark between
the centre and ground electrodes. As a spark travels between the two
electrodes igniting the air/fuel mixture in its path, this small ball of burning gas
is called the flame nucleus.

The creation of the spark also creates a shock wave that causes the heat
generated by the flame nucleus to radiate outwards from the spark plug. This
is called flame propagation. Flame propagation ignites the rest of the air/fuel
mixture present in the combustion chamber.

If the electrode temperature is low then outward propagation of the flame


nucleus may not take place. This is because the electrode absorbs heat
generated by the flame nucleus and extinguishes it. Electrode quenching is
the term given to this phenomenon. If electrode quenching happens, the
engine will misfire. To eliminate this, a strong spark must be delivered to
create a larger flame nucleus.

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Heat flow

For a spark plug to operate effectively within the combustion chamber it needs
to reach operating temperatures of between 450°C and 950°C. Below 450°C,
the plug is unable to self-clean. Carbon that is generated in the combustion
chamber will adhere to the electrodes. This will cause the spark to earth
against the casing and not jump between the two electrodes, causing engine
misfire. Above 950°C, the heat radiated from the electrodes will cause the air/
fuel mixture to ignite without the spark. This is known as pre-ignition. Pre-
ignition will cause incorrect ignition timing with consequences as discussed in
ignition section.

The temperature of the electrode is controlled by the amount of heat radiated


by the spark plug. High heat radiation means low electrode temperature, and
low heat radiation means high electrode temperature.

Spark plug heat range

Cool Standard Hot

Spark plug heat range

The operating temperature of the spark plug depends on its heat range; spark
plugs are normally referred to as a cool type or a hot type. A cool plug
radiates more heat allowing the centre electrode to remain cooler whilst the
hot plug retains its heat. The heat range is dictated by the insulator nose.
The shorter the nose, the colder the spark plug. The longer the nose the
hotter the spark plugs.

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