Details about the capacitor

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The capacitor is a component which has the ability or “capacity” to store energy in the form of an electrical charge producing a potential difference (Static Voltage) across its plates, much like a small rechargeable battery.

There are many different kinds of capacitors available from very small capacitor beads used in resonance circuits to large power factor correction capacitors, but they all do the same thing, they store charge.

In its basic form, a capacitor consists of two or more parallel conductive (metal) plates which are not connected or touching each other, but are electrically separated either by air or by some form of a good insulating material such as waxed paper, mica, ceramic, plastic or some form of a liquid gel as used in electrolytic capacitors. The insulating layer between a capacitors plates is commonly called the Dielectric.

introduction to capacitors

Due to this insulating layer, DC current can not flow through the capacitor as it blocks it allowing instead a voltage to be present across the plates in the form of an electrical charge.

The conductive metal plates of a capacitor can be either square, circular or rectangular, or they can be of a cylindrical or spherical shape with the general shape, size and construction of a parallel plate capacitor depending on its application and voltage rating.

When used in a direct current or DC circuit, a capacitor charges up to its supply voltage but blocks the flow of current through it because the dielectric of a capacitor is non-conductive and basically an insulator. However, when a capacitor is connected to an alternating current or AC circuit, the flow of the current appears to pass straight through the capacitor with little or no resistance.

There are two types of electrical charge, positive charge in the form of Protons and negative charge in the form of Electrons. When a DC voltage is placed across a capacitor, the positive (+ve) charge quickly accumulates on one plate while a corresponding and opposite negative (-ve) charge accumulates on the other plate. For every particle of +ve charge that arrives at one plate a charge of the same sign will depart from the -ve plate.

Then the plates remain charge neutral and a potential difference due to this charge is established between the two plates. Once the capacitor reaches its steady state condition an electrical current is unable to flow through the capacitor itself and around the circuit due to the insulating properties of the dielectric used to separate the plates.

The flow of electrons onto the plates is known as the capacitors Charging Current which continues to flow until the voltage across both plates (and hence the capacitor) is equal to the applied voltage Vc. At this point the capacitor is said to be “fully charged” with electrons.

The strength or rate of this charging current is at its maximum value when the plates are fully discharged (initial condition) and slowly reduces in value to zero as the plates charge up to a potential difference across the capacitors plates equal to the source voltage.

The amount of potential difference present across the capacitor depends upon how much charge was deposited onto the plates by the work being done by the source voltage and also by how much capacitance the capacitor has and this is illustrated below.

introduction to capacitors the symbol

The parallel plate capacitor is the simplest form of capacitor. It can be constructed using two metal or metallised foil plates at a distance parallel to each other, with its capacitance value in Farads, being fixed by the surface area of the conductive plates and the distance of separation between them. Altering any two of these values alters the the value of its capacitance and this forms the basis of operation of the variable capacitors.

Also, because capacitors store the energy of the electrons in the form of an electrical charge on the plates the larger the plates and/or smaller their separation the greater will be the charge that the capacitor holds for any given voltage across its plates. In other words, larger plates, smaller distance, more capacitance.

By applying a voltage to a capacitor and measuring the charge on the plates, the ratio of the charge Q to the voltage V will give the capacitance value of the capacitor and is therefore given as: C = Q/V this equation can also be re-arranged to give the familiar formula for the quantity of charge on the plates as: Q = C x V.

 

The Capacitance of a Capacitor

Capacitance is the electrical property of a capacitor and is the measure of a capacitors ability to store an electrical charge onto its two plates with the unit of capacitance being the Farad (abbreviated to F) named after the British physicist Michael Faraday.

Capacitance is defined as being that a capacitor has the capacitance of One Faradwhen a charge of One Coulomb is stored on the plates by a voltage of One volt. Note that capacitance, C is always positive in value and has no negative units. However, the Farad is a very large unit of measurement to use on its own so sub-multiples of the Farad are generally used such as micro-farads, nano-farads and pico-farads, for example.

Standard Units of Capacitance

  • Microfarad  (μF)   1μF = 1/1,000,000 = 0.000001 = 10-6 F
  • Nanofarad  (nF)   1nF = 1/1,000,000,000 = 0.000000001 = 10-9 F
  • Picofarad  (pF)   1pF = 1/1,000,000,000,000 = 0.000000000001 = 10-12 F

Capacitance of a Parallel Plate Capacitor

The capacitance of a parallel plate capacitor is proportional to the area, A in metres2 of the smallest of the two plates and inversely proportional to the distance or separation, d(i.e. the dielectric thickness) given in metres between these two conductive plates.

The generalised equation for the capacitance of a parallel plate capacitor is given as: C = ε(A/d) where ε represents the absolute permittivity of the dielectric material being used. The permittivity of a vacuum, εo also known as the “permittivity of free space” has the value of the constant 8.84 x 10-12 Farads per metre.

To make the maths a little easier, this dielectric constant of free space, εo, which can be written as: 1/(4π x 9×109), may also have the units of picofarads (pF) per metre as the constant giving: 8.84 for the value of free space. Note though that the resulting capacitance value will be in picofarads and not in farads.

Generally, the conductive plates of a capacitor are separated by some kind of insulating material or gel rather than a perfect vacuum. When calculating the capacitance of a capacitor, we can consider the permittivity of air, and especially of dry air, as being the same value as a vacuum as they are very close.

capacitor capacitance

The Dielectric of a Capacitor

As well as the overall size of the conductive plates and their distance or spacing apart from each other, another factor which affects the overall capacitance of the device is the type of dielectric material being used. In other words the “Permittivity” (ε) of the dielectric.

The conductive plates of a capacitor are generally made of a metal foil or a metal film allowing for the flow of electrons and charge, but the dielectric material used is always an insulator. The various insulating materials used as the dielectric in a capacitor differ in their ability to block or pass an electrical charge.

This dielectric material can be made from a number of insulating materials or combinations of these materials with the most common types used being: air, paper, polyester, polypropylene, Mylar, ceramic, glass, oil, or a variety of other materials.

The factor by which the dielectric material, or insulator, increases the capacitance of the capacitor compared to air is known as the Dielectric Constantk and a dielectric material with a high dielectric constant is a better insulator than a dielectric material with a lower dielectric constant. Dielectric constant is a dimensionless quantity since it is relative to free space.

Multi-plate Capacitor

capacitor construction

Now we have five plates connected to one lead (A) and four plates to the other lead (B). Then BOTH sides of the four plates connected to lead B are in contact with the dielectric, whereas only one side of each of the outer plates connected to A is in contact with the dielectric.

Voltage Rating of a Capacitor

All capacitors have a maximum voltage rating and when selecting a capacitor consideration must be given to the amount of voltage to be applied across the capacitor. The maximum amount of voltage that can be applied to the capacitor without damage to its dielectric material is generally given in the data sheets as: WV, (working voltage) or as WV DC, (DC working voltage).

If the voltage applied across the capacitor becomes too great, the dielectric will break down (known as electrical breakdown) and arcing will occur between the capacitor plates resulting in a short-circuit. The working voltage of the capacitor depends on the type of dielectric material being used and its thickness.

The DC working voltage of a capacitor is just that, the maximum DC voltage and NOT the maximum AC voltage as a capacitor with a DC voltage rating of 100 volts DC cannot be safely subjected to an alternating voltage of 100 volts. Since an alternating voltage that has an RMS value of 100 volts will have a peak value of over 141 volts! (2 x 100).

Then a capacitor which is required to operate at 100 volts AC should have a working voltage of at least 200 volts. In practice, a capacitor should be selected so that its working voltage either DC or AC should be at least 50 percent greater than the highest effective voltage to be applied to it.

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