While the aviation industry continues to experiment with electrical and hybrid engines for carbon-reduction initiatives, a majority of aircraft today continue to rely on the combustion of fuel and air for achieving the means of flight. Many internal combustion engines ignite fuel-and-air mixtures with the use of spark plugs, those of which are provided their electrical charge by the magneto ignition system. In this blog, we will discuss the design and functionality of the magneto ignition system, allowing you to better maintain such assemblies for airworthiness, efficiency, and safety.
While a magneto system may vary in its makeup based on the airplane engine and other airplane hardware components, most will at least include a magneto, distributor, spark plug, and capacitor. The magneto itself is one of the most important components, serving as the source of generated energy. The magneto can be considered a small generator that produces voltage as it is rotated by the airplane engine. Rather than relying on a battery or another form of external power source, the magneto is the energy source itself.
While a primary and secondary winding is standard for all magnetos, other components may differ based on the type of engine rotation that is present. The three main magneto types include the armature rotating type, magnet rotating type, and polar inductor type. The armature rotating type features an armature that revolves around a stationary magnet, while the magnet rotating type rotates its magnets around the armature. The polar inductor type differs somewhat from the other two, featuring stationary winding and magnets. To generate voltage, the polar inductor type reverses its flux field with the use of inductors.
Alongside the magneto is the distributor, that of which is crucial for properly regulating the sequence of sparks delivered to the spark plugs. Distributors are common to multi-cylinder engines, and they ensure uniform distribution of ignition for high combustion efficiency and reliability. There are two major types of distributors that one may use, those of which are the carbon brush type and gap type distributor. With a carbon brush type, the rotor arm will slide over the metallic segment containing the carbon brush, allowing for an electrical connection to be established with the spark plug. With a gap type, the rotor arm will move close to the distributor cap without making contact to prevent electrode wear.
The spark plug in a magneto ignition system will consist of two electrodes that are spaced from one another, meaning that a high voltage will need to jump across the electrodes to create the spark necessary for ignition. To ensure that the electrodes are capable of handling the generated spark, the central electrode is produced from a high nickel alloy known for its temperature resistance.
The final common component of the magneto electrical system is the capacitor, that of which is made from two metal plates with a separating insulating material. While air is the most common form of insulation for magneto capacitors, some systems will require the use of high-quality insulating materials. Alongside the electrical capacitor engine system, there are other various parts that may be found within a typical magneto assembly.
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