THE FOURTH STATE
Gaining a universal insight into the diagnosis of automotive ignition systems
By: Bernie Thompson
Did you know that the fourth state of matter powers the spark ignition internal combustion engine and can be used to diagnose the engine as well? So, one would ask what is the fourth state of matter any way. The ﬁrst state of matter is solid, the second state of matter is liquid, the third state of matter is gas, and the fourth state of matter is plasma. Plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe; however, on earth this state of matter is much sparser than the vast intergalactic plasma of the universe.
On earth plasma is created by high energy and can occur naturally or can be manmade. Plasma is the result of heating a gas in which the particles are charged and the molecules or atoms are ionized. An ion is an atom that has lost or gained an electron changing it from a neutrally charged particle into a charged particle. When gas is super heated a large numbers of ions are formed turning the gas into plasma. The plasma having the presence of a large number of charge carriers makes it electrically conductive. Plasma has properties unlike solids, liquids, or gases and therefore considered a distinct state of matter.
In the spark ignition internal combustion engine, the plasma becomes a major player in igniting the air fuel charge within the combustion chamber. It does this not by electric ﬂow through the hydrocarbons, but by the intense heat that is made by the plasma. This heat puts enough thermal pressure on the hydrocarbons that the hydrocarbon chains break, thus igniting the air fuel charge in the combustion chamber. Since plasma can be created naturally or by man, the question at hand is how is plasma present in the combustion chamber? The plasma in the combustion chamber is not naturally occurring but is manmade. It is produced from the step up transformer or what is known in the automotive industry as the ignition coil. The principal that the step up transformer uses is electromagnetic induction. Electromagnetic induction is created when a magnetic ﬁeld is “changing”- “moving”-“ varying” across a conductor. The conductor that has the magnetic ﬁeld changing across it will create a potential or voltage within the conductor. This potential is caused by the changing magnetic ﬁeld forcing electrons of the conductor to move from one atom to another atom within the conductor; thus creating a diﬀerence between positively and negatively charged atoms. This diﬀerence is potential or voltage.
The step up transformer uses a low voltage, high current pole, to create a high voltage, low current pole. This is done by using two diﬀerent coils or windings of wire. The ﬁrst coil is the primary; the second coil is the secondary as seen in Figure 1.
The primary is wound around a core for magnetic ampliﬁcation. In newer transformers this core will be made of many plates of a ferrous metal, usually a soft iron, layered or laminated together. This gives better ampliﬁcation than a solid core. The primary winding uses larger diameter wire with fewer
windings. This allows the primary to have a very low resistance value. The secondary uses small diameter wire with many more windings. This allows the secondary to have a high resistance value. The automotive coil is usually wound approximately 1 to 100, in other words, for every 1 winding of the primary the secondary has 100 windings. The primary winding usually has 1 to 4 ohms of resistance; whereas, the secondary winding usually has 8,000 ohms to 16,000 ohms of resistance.
The waveform that is produced on an oscilloscope from the automotive step up transformer is shown in ﬁgure 2 and ﬁgure 3. As can be seen in ﬁgure 2 and 3 the primary and the secondary are electromagnetically coupled so anything that aﬀects either winding is mirrored in the other winding.
The automotive step up transformer works by controlling the primary circuit; by either completing the primary circuit or opening the primary circuit. Once this circuit is completed, as can be seen at point C ﬁgure 2, current ﬂows through the primary conductor which in turn creates a magnetic ﬁeld around the conductor and this magnetic ﬁeld is ampliﬁed by the laminated soft iron core. As the current increases the magnetic ﬁeld also increases. Since the secondary winding is wound very close to the primary winding, the magnetic ﬁeld from the primary winding moves or changes through the secondary winding.
This magnetic ﬁeld changing through the secondary winding induces voltage in the secondary winding as can been seen as ringing at point B ﬁgure
- The primary winding has ringing as well but this ringing is dampened by the current ﬂowing through the primary circuit. The primary winding will continue to build the magnetic ﬁeld around itself until the primary winding is saturated as can be seen at point E. This saturation point is a combination of the wire diameter, the number of turns and the applied voltage to the circuit.
Once the primary winding is saturated the current path is broken by the points or ignition module as can be seen at point F. Since the stored magnetic energy in the primary winding is the same as the electric potential, and the electric current ﬂow is shut oﬀ by opening the circuit, the primary magnetic ﬁeld now falls back into the primary conductor in order to try to maintain the current ﬂow within the conductor. Since the electric circuit is open due to the points or ignition module the current path for the collapsing primary magnetic ﬁeld would not be present. This in turn would slow down the collapsing magnetic ﬁeld and would not allow very much electromagnetic induction to take place. The faster the magnetic ﬁeld changes the more electromagnetic induction takes place. In order to allow a current path to be established for the collapsing primary magnetic ﬁeld, an alternate circuit through the condenser or capacitor is used. The condenser or capacitor allows the primary circuit to be completed if the electrical ﬁeld is moving rapidly. The primary magnetic ﬁeld being allowed to collapse through the condenser or capacitor at a very fast rate allows this magnetic ﬁeld to fall rapidly across the secondary winding which creates electromagnetic induction in the secondary winding. This induced voltage puts electrical pressure on the electrons within the secondary winding causing the electrons to move. Since there are a greater number of secondary windings than the primary winding the voltage is ampliﬁed. This allows the vehicles 12 volt battery to be ampliﬁed and produce 50,000 volts from the step up transformer.
The step up transformer produces a high energy state of greater than 20,000 volts and contains it within the transformer; however this high energy state will want to move to a lower energy state outside of the transformer. A conductor will be used such as an ignition wire that will connect the secondary winding to the spark plug. The high energy will push the electrons down the ignition wire to the spark plug where there is an open circuit that is present between the spark plug electrodes. This high voltage produced from the step up transformer will push a low energy into the gap of the spark plug electrodes known as a corona discharge. The corona discharge is an electrical path that is not strong enough to form a conductive region, but not
high enough to cause electrical breakdown or arcing. This corona will allow electrons to start to ﬂow across the spark plug electrodes. This forms early ionization of the spark plug electrodes. As the energy across the spark plug electrodes increases electrical breakdown occurs as seen at point G. The electrical breakdown is the energy that is required to overcome the overall resistance within the secondary circuit which should be 10k to 20k volts. During breakdown the electrons are ripped oﬀ of the atoms that are within the spark plug electrodes. These atoms and molecules are accelerated by the electric ﬁeld and start to hit each other. These molecular hits or collisions create energy exchanges that produce heat. As the areas where the electrons are ﬂowing across the spark plug electrodes have greater numbers of collisions, each collision generates heat so the heat intensiﬁes with a greater current ﬂow. At a point the gas (nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrocarbons) across the spark plug electrodes is super heated a plasma channel is produced. Plasma is a super heated ionized gas containing about equal numbers of positive ions and electrons. The plasma is conductive so when the plasma is created the resistance across the spark plug electrodes is reduced as seen at point H. The creation of the plasma channel is the diﬀerence of point G whereas breakdown occurred, and point H whereas the breakdown was super heated creating plasma which is conductive and lowers the resistance. It is important to note on an oscilloscope the voltage changes show resistance changes occurring within a circuit.
When diagnosing the engine using point G of the ignition waveform it can be very hard to determine if there is a problem or not, this is due to point G’s normal range moving between 10k and 20k. If the Point at G is greater than 20k this indicates there is a problem with the resistance of the secondary circuit. A much better indicator of a problem than point G is the point of plasma at point H. This point will be very steady and should be between 1.5k and 2k depending on the size of the spark plug gap. Since the plasma is created by the number of ion collisions which is proportional to the amount of current ﬂowing, the only thing that will move this point up or down is resistance. If the resistance moves up the current goes down (smaller plasma channel less conductive), and if the resistance moves down current moves up (larger plasma channel more conductive).
After the point of plasma (which is where the vertical ﬁre line and the horizontal burn line meet) ringing will occur. The ringing is the energy changing between electrical energy and magnetic energy. Just like when a bell is struck, the ringing from the bell is loud when ﬁrst struck and diminishes. The harder it is to ionize the spark plug electrodes the larger this ringing will be. Point I is the plasma channel (what is referred to in the automotive industry as burn
time) that was established during breakdown. Remember that the gases that were contained within the combustion chamber are what the plasma is made with. In other words, the gas will contain atmospheric gas which is approximately 79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen; and other gases that can be present are, hydrocarbons (gasoline), exhaust gases (EGR), and positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) gases. The conductivity of the plasma will change depending on what gases contained within the plasma channel. This means that the voltage shown on the oscilloscope of the burn line will be proportion to the resistance of the plasma channel.
The point at J is where the plasma is breaking down. Since the plasma is comprised of an equal number of positive ions and electrons, when the electron ﬂow starts to run out due to a limited reservoir contained in the step up transformer, the positive ions and electrons become unbalanced allowing the plasma channel to break down. This plasma channel breaking down changes the conductivity within the plasma creating more resistance which in turn causes the voltage to increase.
The point at K indicates the amount of energy that is still remaining in the step up transformer. The ﬁrst negative oscillation is the most important and this point should be about -1k volts to -2k volts. At the point the electron ﬂow ends across the spark plug electrodes the energy that did not leave the transformer must be dissipated. The step up transformer accomplishes this by ringing the energy. This ringing or oscillation is created by the energy changing between electrical energy and magnetic energy which the step up transformer is very good at. The larger the voltage change and the more oscillations within the ringing, the more energy is left in the ignition
coil. If there are no rings the energy of the ignition coil was totally dissipated. This ringing can be used to see how much energy was used or not used during the ignition coil discharge.
Now let us analyze the ignition waveforms that are seen in ﬁgure 4 and ﬁgure 5. This engine ran with an intermittent misﬁre, ﬁgure 4 shows where there was not a misﬁre present and ﬁgure 5 shows where a misﬁre occurred.
In ﬁgure 4 the ignition waveform is normal. The breakdown voltage is at 8k volts, the point of plasma is at 1.5k volts, the burn time is over 2ms, and the energy left in the coil is -1k volts. Now let us analyze ﬁgure 5, this waveform shows the breakdown voltage over 10k volts, the point of plasma is at 4.5k volts, the burn time is about .6ms, and the energy left in the coil is -1.5k volts. When analyzing ignition waveforms it will be very important to check the “Time to Tail”.
The “Time to Tail” shows the time the transformer had to discharge the energy and how much energy was still remaining in the transformer. In this case the burn time is only .6ms and the energy remaining in the transformer is only -1.5k volts. With only .6ms of time to discharge the energy that was contain in the transformer, it would not have enough time to dissipate the energy to -1.5k volts. If the spark had ionized across the spark plug electrodes with only .6ms of burn time the energy that would be left within the transformer would be over -5k volts. There are physics that determine how much energy can travel through the plasma channel created across the sparkplug electrodes. If the time that the transformer has to ionize the spark plug electrodes is limited, then the energy cannot be dissipated in this limited time, so a large amount of the energy will remain in the transformer. This energy will have to be dissipated with the ringing of the transformer.
If the burn time is limited and the energy that is still remaining in the transformer is low, then the spark did not go across the spark plug electrodes but went somewhere else. It will be necessary to check the point of plasma in order to determine where the spark went. Since the plasma is at 4.5k volts this indicates that the spark did not ionize, but took a carbon path. The carbon is a conductor that changes the resistance. This is why the point of plasma is so high, and the energy contained within the transformer is totally drained. How the burn voltage is formed will show what type of material the carbon trace is on. As can be seen in ﬁgure 5 the carbon trace is down the side of the spark plug between the D and the E. When a carbon trace
has been made on the spark plug the spark plug boot will have a carbon path has well. The carbon trace in the spark plug boot will look like a squiggly light gray line. Both the spark plug and spark plug boot will need to be replaced.
Now let us analyze the ignition waveforms in ﬁgures 6 and ﬁgure 7. This engine ran with an intermittent misﬁre, ﬁgure 6 shows where there was not a misﬁre present and ﬁgure 7 shows where a misﬁre occurred. In ﬁgures 6 and ﬁgure 7 the throttle is snapped to about 50% in order to load the ignition system. With more air in the
combustion chamber more pressure can be produced and it is far harder to ionize a gas that is under pressure. This loads the ignition discharge in order to locate problems. In ﬁgure 6 the ignition waveform is normal with a snapped throttle opening. The breakdown voltage is at 10k volts, the point of plasma is at 1.5k volts, the burn time is 1.2ms, and the energy left in the coil is -1.7k volts. Now let us analyze ﬁgure 7, this waveform shows the breakdown voltage over 14k volts, the point of plasma is at 1.8k volts, the burn time is about .5ms, and the energy left in the coil is -8.5k volts. The “Time to Tail” is .5ms of burn time and the energy left in the transformer is -8.5k volts. The point of plasma is 1.8k volts. This shows that the spark did ionize across the spark plug electrodes. However, the burn time voltage increases rapidly to 17k volts. Since the plasma channel sets this voltage, a high resistance is indicated. This resistance is created by what the plasma gas is made of. In this case it shows a lack of hydrocarbons contained within the plasma channel. This lean air fuel charge changes the plasma composition, which with the lack of carbon creates a low conductance within the plasma channel, thus creating a high burn voltage. With this additional resistance the transformer could not discharge the energy contained within it and therefore the energy had to be dissipated by the transformer. This is indicated by the negative going tail which is quite high at -8.5k volts. This intermittent misﬁre was caused by dirty fuel injectors.
The vast intergalactic plasma of the universe is not very important to you when repairing a vehicle in your bay; however, the fourth state of matter within the combustion chamber is. As you can see with an understanding of the fourth state of matter a very fast accurate diagnoses can be made in your service bay.