Electric spark
An electric spark is a type of electrostatic discharge
Electrostatic discharge
Electrostatic discharge is a serious issue in solid state electronics, such as integrated circuits. Integrated circuits are made from semiconductor materials such as silicon and insulating materials such as silicon dioxide...

 that occurs when an electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

 creates an ionized
Ionization is the process of converting an atom or molecule into an ion by adding or removing charged particles such as electrons or other ions. This is often confused with dissociation. A substance may dissociate without necessarily producing ions. As an example, the molecules of table sugar...

 electrically conductive
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

 channel in air producing a brief emission of light and sound. A spark is formed when the electric field strength exceeds the dielectric field strength
Dielectric strength
In physics, the term dielectric strength has the following meanings:*Of an insulating material, the maximum electric field strength that it can withstand intrinsically without breaking down, i.e., without experiencing failure of its insulating properties....

 of air. This causes an increase in the number of free electrons and ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s in the air, temporarily causing the air to become an electrical conductor
Electrical conductor
In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is a material which contains movable electric charges. In metallic conductors such as copper or aluminum, the movable charged particles are electrons...

 through dielectric breakdown.

Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

 is an example of an electric spark in nature, while electric sparks large or small occur in or near many man-made objects, both by design and sometimes by accident.


Around 600 BC, Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus observed that amber could be electrified when rubbed with a cloth and attract other objects and produce sparks. In 1671, Leibniz discovered that sparks were associated with electrical phenomena. In 1708, Samuel Wall performed experiments with amber
Amber is fossilized tree resin , which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Amber is used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewelry. There are five classes of amber, defined on the basis of their chemical constituents...

 rubbed with cloth to produce sparks. In 1752, Thomas-François Dalibard
Thomas-François Dalibard
Thomas-François Dalibard was born in Crannes-en-Champagne, France in 1709 and died in 1799.-Relationship with Ben Franklin:He first met U.S. scientist Benjamin Franklin in 1767 during one of Franklin's visits to France and it is said that they became friends.In 1750, Benjamin Franklin published a...

 and Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin
Dr. Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat...

 independently demonstrated that lightning
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

 and electricity were equivalent. In Franklin's famous kite experiment, he successfully extracted sparks from a cloud during a thunderstorm.

Ignition sources

Electric sparks are used in spark plug
Spark plug
A spark plug is an electrical device that fits into the cylinder head of some internal combustion engines and ignites compressed fuels such as aerosol, gasoline, ethanol, and liquefied petroleum gas by means of an electric spark.Spark plugs have an insulated central electrode which is connected by...

s in gasoline internal combustion engine
Internal combustion engine
The internal combustion engine is an engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer in a combustion chamber. In an internal combustion engine, the expansion of the high-temperature and high -pressure gases produced by combustion apply direct force to some component of the engine...

s to ignite fuel and air mixtures. The electric discharge in a spark plug occurs between an insulated central electrode and a grounded terminal on the base of the plug. The voltage for the spark is provided by an ignition coil
Ignition coil
An ignition coil is an induction coil in an automobile's ignition system which transforms the battery's 12 volts to the thousands of volts needed to create an electric spark in the spark plugs to ignite the fuel...

 or magneto
Magneto (electrical)
A magneto is an electrical generator that uses permanent magnets to produce alternating current.Magnetos adapted to produce pulses of high voltage are used in the ignition systems of some gasoline-powered internal combustion engines to provide power to the spark plugs...

 circuit that is connected to the spark plug with an insulated wire.

Flame igniters use electric sparks to initiate combustion in some furnace
A furnace is a device used for heating. The name derives from Latin fornax, oven.In American English and Canadian English, the term furnace on its own is generally used to describe household heating systems based on a central furnace , and sometimes as a synonym for kiln, a device used in the...

s and gas stove
Gas stove
In cooking, a gas stove is a cooker which uses natural gas, propane, butane, liquefied petroleum gas or other flammable gas as a fuel source.-History:...

s in place of a pilot flame. Auto reignition
Auto reignition
Auto reignition is a process used in gas burners to control ignition devices based on whether a burner flame is lit. This information can be used to stop an ignition device from sparking, which is no longer necessary after the flame is lit...

 is a safety feature that is used in some flame igniters that senses the electrical conductivity of the flame and uses this information to determine whether a burner flame is lit. This information is used to stop an ignition device from sparking after the flame is lit or restart the flame if it goes out.

Radio communications

A spark-gap transmitter
Spark-gap transmitter
A spark-gap transmitter is a device for generating radio frequency electromagnetic waves using a spark gap.These devices served as the transmitters for most wireless telegraphy systems for the first three decades of radio and the first demonstrations of practical radio were carried out using them...

 uses an electric spark gap
Spark gap
A spark gap consists of an arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap usually filled with a gas such as air, designed to allow an electric spark to pass between the conductors. When the voltage difference between the conductors exceeds the gap's breakdown voltage, a spark forms,...

 to generate radio frequency
Radio frequency
Radio frequency is a rate of oscillation in the range of about 3 kHz to 300 GHz, which corresponds to the frequency of radio waves, and the alternating currents which carry radio signals...

 electromagnetic radiation
Electromagnetic radiation
Electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy that exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space...

 that can be used as transmitter
In electronics and telecommunications a transmitter or radio transmitter is an electronic device which, with the aid of an antenna, produces radio waves. The transmitter itself generates a radio frequency alternating current, which is applied to the antenna. When excited by this alternating...

s for wireless
Wireless telecommunications is the transfer of information between two or more points that are not physically connected. Distances can be short, such as a few meters for television remote control, or as far as thousands or even millions of kilometers for deep-space radio communications...

 communication. Spark gap transmitters were widely used in the first three decades of radio
Radio is the transmission of signals through free space by modulation of electromagnetic waves with frequencies below those of visible light. Electromagnetic radiation travels by means of oscillating electromagnetic fields that pass through the air and the vacuum of space...

 from 1887–1916. They were later supplanted by vacuum tube
Vacuum tube
In electronics, a vacuum tube, electron tube , or thermionic valve , reduced to simply "tube" or "valve" in everyday parlance, is a device that relies on the flow of electric current through a vacuum...

 systems and by 1940 were no longer used for communication. The wide use of spark-gap transmitters led to the nickname "sparks" for a ship's radio officer.


Electric sparks are used in different kinds of metalworking
Metalworking is the process of working with metals to create individual parts, assemblies, or large scale structures. The term covers a wide range of work from large ships and bridges to precise engine parts and delicate jewelry. It therefore includes a correspondingly wide range of skills,...

. Electric discharge machining (EDM) is sometimes called spark machining and uses a spark discharge to remove material from a workpiece. Electrical discharge machining is used for hard metals or those that are difficult to machine with traditional techniques.

Spark plasma sintering
Spark plasma sintering
Spark plasma sintering , also known as field assisted sintering technique or pulsed electric current sintering , is a sintering technique....

 (SPS) is a sintering
Sintering is a method used to create objects from powders. It is based on atomic diffusion. Diffusion occurs in any material above absolute zero, but it occurs much faster at higher temperatures. In most sintering processes, the powdered material is held in a mold and then heated to a temperature...

 technique that uses a pulsed direct current
Direct current
Direct current is the unidirectional flow of electric charge. Direct current is produced by such sources as batteries, thermocouples, solar cells, and commutator-type electric machines of the dynamo type. Direct current may flow in a conductor such as a wire, but can also flow through...

 that passes through an conductive powder in a graphite
The mineral graphite is one of the allotropes of carbon. It was named by Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789 from the Ancient Greek γράφω , "to draw/write", for its use in pencils, where it is commonly called lead . Unlike diamond , graphite is an electrical conductor, a semimetal...

 die. SPS is faster than conventional hot isostatic pressing
Hot isostatic pressing
Hot isostatic pressing is a manufacturing process used to reduce the porosity of metals and influence the density of many ceramic materials. This improves the material's mechanical properties and workability....

, where the heat is provided by external heating element
Heating element
A heating element converts electricity into heat through the process of Joule heating. Electric current through the element encounters resistance, resulting in heating of the element....


Chemical analysis

The light that is produced by electric sparks can be collected and used for a type of spectroscopy
Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and radiated energy. Historically, spectroscopy originated through the study of visible light dispersed according to its wavelength, e.g., by a prism. Later the concept was expanded greatly to comprise any interaction with radiative...

 called spark emission spectroscopy.

A high energy pulsed laser can be used to produce an electric spark. Laser induced breakdown spectroscopy
Laser induced breakdown spectroscopy
Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy is a type of atomic emission spectroscopy which uses a highly energetic laser pulse as the excitation source. The laser is focused to form a plasma, which atomizes and excites samples. In principle, LIBS can analyse any matter regardless of its physical state,...

 (LIBS) is a type of atomic emission spectroscopy
Atomic emission spectroscopy
Atomic emission spectroscopy is a method of chemical analysis that uses the intensity of light emitted from a flame, plasma, arc, or spark at a particular wavelength to determine the quantity of an element in a sample...

 that uses a high pulse energy laser
A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of photons. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation...

 to excite atoms in a sample. LIBS has also been called laser spark spectroscopy (LSS).

Electric sparks can also be used to create ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s for mass spectrometry
Mass spectrometry
Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles.It is used for determining masses of particles, for determining the elemental composition of a sample or molecule, and for elucidating the chemical structures of molecules, such as peptides and...


See also

  • Corona discharge
    Corona discharge
    In electricity, a corona discharge is an electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid surrounding a conductor that is electrically energized...

  • Electrical breakdown
    Electrical breakdown
    The term electrical breakdown or electric breakdown has several similar but distinctly different meanings. For example, the term can apply to the failure of an electric circuit....

  • Paschen's law
    Paschen's law
    Paschen's Law, named after Friedrich Paschen, was first stated in 1889. He studied the breakdown voltage of gas between parallel plates as a function of pressure and gap distance. The voltage necessary to arc across the gap decreased up to a point as the pressure was reduced. It then increased,...

  • Static electricity
    Static electricity
    Static electricity refers to the build-up of electric charge on the surface of objects. The static charges remain on an object until they either bleed off to ground or are quickly neutralized by a discharge. Static electricity can be contrasted with current electricity, which can be delivered...

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