Early patents for spark plugs included those by Nikola Tesla (in for an ignition timing system, 1898), Richard Simms (GB 24859/1898, 1898) and Robert Bosch (GB 26907/1898). Some historians have reported that Edmond Berger invented an early spark plug on February 2, 1839. Karl Benz is also credited with the invention. But only the invention of the first commercially viable high-voltage spark plug as part of a magneto-based ignition system by Robert Bosch's engineer Gottlob Honold in 1902 made possible the development of the internal combustion engine.
Internal combustion engines can be divided into spark-ignition engines, which require spark plugs to begin combustion, and compression-ignition engines (diesel engines), which compress the air and then inject diesel fuel into the heated compressed air mixture where it autoignites. Compression-ignition engines may use glow plugs to improve cold start characteristics.
Spark plugs may also be used in other applications such as furnaces where a combustible mixture should be ignited. In this case, they are sometimes referred to as flame igniters.
The plug is connected to the high voltage generated by an ignition coil or magneto. As the electrons flow from the coil, a voltage difference develops between the center electrode and side electrode. No current can flow because the fuel and air in the gap is an insulator, but as the voltage rises further, it begins to change the structure of the gases between the electrodes. Once the voltage exceeds the dielectric strength of the gases, the gases become ionized. The ionized gas becomes a conductor and allow electrons to flow across the gap. Spark plugs usually require voltage in excess of 20,000 volts to 'fire' properly.
As the current of electrons surges across the gap, it raises the temperature of the spark channel to 60,000 K. The intense heat in the spark channel causes the ionized gas to expand very quickly, like a small explosion. This is the "click" heard when observing a spark, similar to lightning and thunder. A new type of plug called a pulse plug released in 2007 incorporates a peaking capacitor into the plug itself that releases all its contents into the plug gap giving a much more intense spark.
The heat and pressure force the gases to react with each other, and at the end of the spark event there should be a small ball of fire in the spark gap as the gases burn on their own. The size of this fireball or kernel depends on the exact composition of the mixture between the electrodes and the level of combustion chamber turbulence at the time of the spark. A small kernel will make the engine run as though the ignition timing was retarded, and a large one as though the timing was advanced.
A spark plug is composed of a shell, insulator and the conductor. It pierces the wall of the combustion chamber and therefore must also seal the combustion chamber against high pressures and temperatures, without deteriorating over long periods of time and extended use.
The exact composition and length of the insulator determines the heat range of the plug. Short insulators are "cooler" plugs. "Hotter" plugs are made with a lengthened path to the metal body, by isolating the insulator over much of its length with an annular groove.
Older spark plugs, particularly in aircraft, used an insulator made of stacked layers of mica, compressed by tension in the centre electrode. With the development of leaded petrol in the 1930s, lead deposits on the mica became a problem and reduced the interval between needing to clean the spark plug. Sintered aluminium oxide was developed by Siemens in Germany to counteract this.
The center electrode is usually the one designed to eject the electrons (the cathode) because it is the hottest (normally) part of the plug; it is easier to emit electrons from a hot surface, because of the same physical laws that increase emissions of vapor from hot surfaces (see thermionic emission). In addition, electrons are emitted where the electrical field strength is greatest; this is from wherever the radius of curvature of the surface is smallest, i.e. from a sharp point or edge rather than a flat surface (see corona discharge). It would be easiest to pull electrons from a pointed electrode but a pointed electrode would erode after only a few seconds. Instead, the electrons emit from the sharp edges of the end of the electrode; as these edges erode, the spark becomes weaker and less reliable.
At one time it was common to remove the spark plugs, clean deposits off the ends either manually or with specialized sandblasting equipment and file the end of the electrode to restore the sharp edges, but this practice has become less frequent as spark plugs are now merely replaced, at much longer intervals. The development of precious metal high temperature electrodes (using metals such as yttrium, iridium, platinum, tungsten, or palladium, as well as the relatively prosaic silver or gold) allows the use of a smaller center wire, which has sharper edges but will not melt or corrode away. The smaller electrode also absorbs less heat from the spark and initial flame energy. At one point, Firestone marketed plugs with polonium in the tip, under the questionable theory that the radioactivity would ionize the air in the gap, easing spark formation. (See external link below)
Spark plugs are typically designed to have a spark gap which can be adjusted by the technician installing the spark plug, by the simple method of bending the ground electrode slightly to bring it closer to or further from the center electrode. The belief that plugs are properly gapped as delivered in their box from the factory is only partially true, as proven by the fact that the same plug may be specified for several different engines, requiring a different gap for each. It can depend on the engine: new spark plugs might be pre-gapped for a V-8 engine, installing all 8 plugs unchanged; however if installed in a 6-cylinder engine, all (6) plugs would require re-gapping.
A spark plug gap gauge is a disc with a sloping edge, or with round wires of precise diameters, and is used to measure the gap; use of a feeler gauge with flat blades instead of round wires, as is used on distributor points or valve lash, will give erroneous results, due to the shape of spark plug electrodes. The simplest gauges are a collection of keys of various thicknesses which match the desired gaps and the gap is adjusted until the key fits snugly. With current engine technology, universally incorporating solid state ignitions and computerized fuel injection, the gaps used are much larger than in the era of carburetors and breaker point distributors, to the extent that spark plug gauges from that era are much too small for measuring the gaps of current cars.
The gap adjustment can be fairly critical, and if it is maladjusted the engine may run badly, or not at all. A narrow gap may give too small and weak a spark to effectively ignite the fuel-air mixture, while a gap that is too wide might prevent a spark from firing at all. Either way, a spark which only intermittently fails to ignite the fuel-air mixture may not be noticeable directly, but will show up as a reduction in the engine's power and fuel efficiency. The main issues with spark plug gaps are:
A properly gapped plug will be wide enough to burn hot, but not so wide that it skips or misses at high speeds, causing that cylinder to drag, or the engine to begin to rattle.
As a plug ages, and the metal of both the tip and hook erode, the gap will tend to widen; therefore experienced mechanics often set the gap on new plugs at the engine manufacturer's minimum recommended gap, rather than in the center of the specified acceptable range, to ensure longer life between plug changes. On the other hand, since a larger gap gives a "hotter" or "fatter" spark and more reliable ignition of the fuel-air mixture, and since a new plug with sharp edges on the center electrode will spark more reliably than an older, eroded plug, experienced mechanics also realize that the maximum gap specified by the engine manufacturer is the largest which will spark reliably even with old plugs and will in fact be a bit narrower than necessary to ensure sparking with new plugs; therefore, it is possible to set the plugs to an extremely wide gap for more reliable ignition in high performance applications, at the cost of having to replace or re-gap the plugs much more frequently, as soon as the tip begins to erode.
Ford engines, however, were once distinct in using a tapered hole and a matching taper on the bottom of the plug above the threads, in order to seal the plug. The torque for installing and removing these plugs was higher and it was easier to break them if the wrench was applied partially off axis.
More recently, some types of Ford Fiesta, and Ka also had a similar sealing system. The torque required to install these plugs is less than with the above type, and it is extremely critical that they not be overtightened, since overtightening can result in it being difficult or impossible to remove them. In addition, they have been known to corrode into the cylinder head, particularly if left in too long between removals. In such a situation, it is not unknown for a plug to snap below the hexagonal nut, leaving just the threaded portion (and the outer electrode) in the cylinder head. Ford has on occasion issued TSB's reminding technicians to use the correct methods of installation.
The length of the threaded portion of the plug should be closely matched to the thickness of the head. If a plug extends too far into the combustion chamber, it may be struck by the piston, damaging the engine internally. Less dramatically, if the threads of the plug extend into the combustion chamber, the sharp edges of the threads act as point sources of heat which may cause preignition; in addition, deposits which form between the exposed threads may make it difficult to remove the plugs, even damaging the threads on aluminium heads in the process of removal. The protrusion of the tip into the chamber also affects plug performance, however; the more centrally located the spark gap is, generally the better the ignition of the air-fuel mixture will be, although experts believe the process is actually much more complex and dependent on combustion chamber shape. On the other hand, if an engine is "burning oil", the excess oil leaking into the combustion chamber tends to foul the plug tip and inhibit the spark; in such cases, a plug with less protrusion than the engine would normally call for often collects less fouling and performs better, for a longer period. In fact, special "antifouling" adapters are sold which fit between the plug and the head to reduce the protrusion of the plug for just this reason, on older engines with severe oil burning problems; this will cause the ignition of the fuel-air mixture to be less effective, but in such cases, this is of lesser significance.
A spark plug is said to be "hot" if it is a better heat insulator, keeping more heat in the tip of the spark plug. A spark plug is said to be "cold" if it can conduct more heat out of the spark plug tip and lower the tip's temperature. Whether a spark plug is "hot" or "cold" is known as the heat range of the spark plug. The heat range of a spark plug is typically specified as a number, with some manufacturers using ascending numbers for hotter plugs and others doing the opposite, using ascending numbers for colder plugs.
The heat range of a spark plug (i.e. in scientific terms its thermal conductivity characteristics) is affected by the construction of the spark plug: the types of materials used, the length of insulator and the surface area of the plug exposed within the combustion chamber. For normal use, the selection of a spark plug heat range is a balance between keeping the tip hot enough at idle to prevent fouling and cold enough at maximum power to prevent pre-ignition leading to engine knocking. By examining "hotter" and "cooler" spark plugs of the same manufacturer side by side, the principle involved can be very clearly seen; the cooler plugs have more substantial ceramic insulators filling the gap between the center electrode and the shell, effectively carrying off the heat, while the hotter plugs have less ceramic material, so that the tip is more isolated from the body of the plug and retains heat better.
Heat from the combustion chamber escapes through the exhaust gases, the side walls of the cylinder and the spark plug itself. The heat range of a spark plug has only a minute effect on combustion chamber and overall engine temperature. A cold plug will not materially cool down an engine's running temperature. (Too hot of a plug may, however, indirectly lead to a runaway pre-ignition condition that can increase engine temperature.) Rather, the main effect of a "hot" or "cold" plug is to affect the temperature of the tip of the spark plug.
It was common before the modern era of computerized fuel injection to specify at least a couple of different heat ranges for plugs for an automobile engine; a hotter plug for cars which were mostly driven mildly around the city, and a colder plug for sustained high speed highway use. This practice has, however, largely become obsolete now that cars' fuel/air mixtures and cylinder temperatures are maintained within a narrow range, for purposes of limiting emissions. Racing engines, however, still benefit from picking a proper plug heat range. Very old racing engines will sometimes have two sets of plugs, one just for starting and another to be installed once the engine is warmed up, for actually driving the car.
A light brownish discoloration of the tip of the block indicates proper operation; other conditions may indicate malfunction. For example, a sandblasted look to the tip of the spark plug means persistent, light detonation is occurring, often unheard. The damage that is occurring to the tip of the spark plug is also occurring on the inside of the cylinder. Heavy detonation can cause outright breakage of the spark plug insulator and internal engine parts before appearing as sandblasted erosion but is easily heard. As another example, if the plug is too cold, there will be deposits on the nose of the plug. Conversely if the plug is too hot, the porcelain will be porous looking, almost like sugar. The material which seals the center electrode to the insulator will boil out. Sometimes the end of the plug will appear glazed, as the deposits have melted.
An idling engine will have a different impact on the spark plugs than one running at full throttle. Spark plug readings are only valid for the most recent engine operating conditions and running the engine under different conditions may erase or obscure characteristic marks previously left on the spark plugs. Thus, the most valuable information is gathered by running the engine at high speed and full load, immediately cutting the ignition off and stopping without idling or low speed operation and removing the plugs for reading.
Spark plug reading viewers, which are simply combined flashlight/magnifiers, are available to improve the reading of the spark plugs.
Once again, however, the practice of reading spark plugs has largely become obsolete now that cars' fuel/air mixtures and cylinder temperatures are maintained within a narrow range, but is still valuable for racing applications.