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How ignition coils work

An ignition coil is essentially two coils of wire which share a common spool. One coil is called
the primary and the other is called the secondary. Depending on how a coil is connected, it
will either step up (boost) or step down (buck) the voltage applied to it on the primary side.

An ignition coil is almost identical to a transformer. These are energy transfer devices which
utilize the laws of current and magnetism to induce a voltage. Electrical energy applied to the
primary creates a magnetic field (flux) which in turn, induces a current in the secondary
which carries energy to the load (a sparkplug) connected to the secondary. The energy
applied to the primary must be in the form of a changing voltage which creates a constantly
changing current in the primary, since only a changing magnetic field will produce a current in
the secondary. The amount of voltage produced in the secondary is proportional to the "turns
ratio". The spool around which all the wire is wound serves to condense the magnetic flux.

For a vehicle's engine high voltage (about 12,000 volts) is needed to ignite the fuel air mix
that is burnt in the cylinders to produce power. In order for this to occur the primary side will
have fewer turns of wire than the secondary. While a cylinder is being filled with fresh fuel/air
mix the coil is being charged with current. This will build up a magnetic field within the spool.
This on time is also known as dwell. When the coil is commanded to fire, the current is
abruptly switched off and the magnetic field colapses. The colapsing field induces a current
in the secondary winding.

For example, in a coil with a ratio of 100:1 and 12 volts applied across the primary, the
resulting voltage in the secondary would be 12 x 100 or 1200 volts. If the primary has 100
turns the secondary would have 200,000 turns. In order to use this on a car engine, the
primary voltage would need to be pumped up to around 300 volts.

Magnetic Inductance
This principle is based around a magnetic field (or flux) being produced, as the coil's earth
circuit is completed by either the contacts or the amplifier providing the coil negative terminal
with a path to earth. When this circuit is complete, a magnetic field is produced and builds
until the coil's magnetic field reaches a maximum point called saturation. At the
predetermined point of ignition, the coil's earth is removed and the magnetic field or flux
collapses across the coils 250 to 350 primary windings, which in turn induces a voltage of
150 to 350 volts.
This induced voltage will be determined by :-

• The number of turns in the primary winding.

• The strength of the magnetic flux, which is proportionate to the current in the primary
• The rate of collapse, which is determined by the speed of the switching of the earth
Dwell period
Dwell is measured as an angle: with contact ignition, the points gap determines the dwell
angle. The definition of contact ignition dwell is: the number of degrees of distributor rotation
with the contacts closed. A coil requires a minimum charge up time in order to reach full
power. This is due to their resistance to a change in their energy state. After the primary has
been fully saturated, the coil should be fired or energy will be wasted and the coil will get
excessively hot.

As an example, a 4 cylinder engine will have a dwell of approximately 45 degrees, which is

50% of one cylinders complete primary cycle. The dwell period on an engine with electronic
ignition is controlled by the current limiting circuit within the amplifier or Electronic Control
Module (ECM).

The dwell on a constant energy system will be seen to expand as the engine speed
increases, to compensate for a shorter time period. The term 'constant energy' refers to the
available voltage produced by the coil. This, regardless of engine speed, will remain
constant, as opposed to contact ignition where an increase in engine speed means the
contacts are closed for a shorter time period. This reduces the effective time that the coil has
to fully saturate and maximize the strength of the magnetic flux.