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A capacitor consists of two metal plates with a thin insulator in between, as its symbol shows:

What will happen if we connect a DC voltage source (battery) to a capacitor? The positive side of the battery attracts the electrons in the top plate of the capacitor. This plate will become positively charged. Because the insulator is very thin, the top plate will attract the electrons in the bottom plate. The gaps these electrons leave behind, will be filled up with the electrons from the negative end of the battery. So it seems if the current flows right through the capacitor, as if there were no insulator at all. But of course, this can't continue for ever. Eventually, there will be no electrons left on the top plate, and no room for more electrons on the bottom plate. The capacitor is now completely charged, and the current flow will stop.

Now let's swap the terminals of the battery. The positive terminal of the battery will attract the electrons on the bottom plate of the capacitor and the negative end of the battery will emit electrons to fill in the gaps on the top plate. This process will continue until the capacitor is charged again. If we continually swap the terminals of the battery, there will be a continuous current flow. In other words: a capacitor conducts AC voltages, but suppresses DC voltages.

The capacitance depends on the size of the plates and the matial between them. This material is called the dielectric and reduces the electric field between the plates. This will increase the capacitance. The capacitance can be calculated with: C = εA/d, where ε is the dielectric constant, A the area of one plate and d the distance between the plates. Since we can buy capacitors in any electronics show, we'll seldomly need this formula. The unit of capacity is Farad, symbol F. This unit is usually far too large; uF (micro Farad), nF (nano Farad), and pF (pico Farad) are more common. 1F = 1000000uF, 1uF = 1000nF, 1nF = 1000pF.

The impedance of a capacitor
The impedance of a component is the resistance of that component for AC voltages. The symbol for resistance is R; the symbol for impedance is X. The impedance of a capacitor is not zero; it depends on the capacity (size of the plates) and the frequency of the signal (number of polarity changes (forth and back) per second). The impedance can be calculated using the following equation. f is the frequency in Hertz; C is the capacitance in Farad

Example: We have a 1nF capacitor and connect it to a 50Hz AC voltage source. Calculate the impedance of the capacitor.

XC = 1/(2·π·50·10-9) = 3.18MΩ

Phase shift
When the voltage across a certain resistor increases, the current flow through that resistor will also increase (and visa versa). This is not true for a capacitor. We already saw in the introduction that if a capacitor is fully charged (so the voltage across it has reached its maximum), the current flow stops. The current will have its maximum value when the capacitor is empty. Let's look what happens if we connect a capacitor to a sinusoidal voltage source.

We connected a capacitor to a 1kHz voltage source. The green curve shows the voltage across the capacitor and the blue curve shows the current flow. We see that the current reaches the top value 1/4 period before the voltage. Since 1/4 period of a sine wave equals 90 degrees, we say that capacitors cause a 90 degrees phase shift. Or actually: a -90 degrees phase shift, because the current reaches its top value before the voltage does.

Frequency filters
Take a look on the diagram on the right. Assume that the voltage source supplies a 1V/10kHz signal (this means: the amplitude is 1V and the frequency is 10kHz = 10000Hz). The impedance of capacitor C will be XC = 1/(2·π·104·10-6) = 15,9Ω. The output voltage (voltage across capacitor C) will be 1V·(XC/ ZR+C), where ZR+C is the total impedance of R and C. Because a capacitor causes a phase shift in the current flow, we cannot just state that ZR+C = R + XC. Using some complex math we can prove that: ZR+C = √(R2+XC2). In our case ZR+C = √(1k2+15.92) = 1000.13Ω. So the output voltage becomes 1V·(15.9/1000.13) = 0.0159V. Now assume that the voltage source supplies a 1V/10Hz signal. The impedance of capacitor C will then be XC = 1/(2·π·10·10-6) = 15,9kΩ. The output voltage will be 1V·(XC/(ZR+C)) = 1V·(15.9k/√(1k2+15.9k2)) = 0.998V. So we created a very simple frequency filter with just a resistor and a capacitor. In this case we created a so called low pass filter (LPF) since it passes low frequency signals and suppresses high frequency signals. If you swap R and C, you create a high pass filter (HPF). Let's calculate the cut-off frequency of our filter. The cut-off frequency is the frequency at which R=XC => R = 1/(2·π·f·C) =>

In our case f = 1/(2·π·103·10-6) = 159Hz.

Every capacitor has a certain series resistance. This resistance is not only caused by the leads, but also by the metal plates and the dielectric the capacitor is made of. The sum of these resistances is called ESR, Equivalent Series Resistance. This resistance will not always remain the same, but may increase due to aging. When will the ESR bother us? Of couse this depends on how large the ESR is and the application in which the capacitor is used. Assume the ESR of capacitor C in the filter above is 10Ω. At very high frequencies the output voltage will not be 0V, but 1V·(10/1010) = 10mV. In most cases, this will not be any problem. However, if resistor R were also 10Ω, the output voltage would have been 0.5V! We can also expect ESR problems with large charge and discharge currents flow though the capacitor. Remember, a large current means a large voltage across the series resistance. This may even heat up the capacitor. If a capacitor heats up, the ESR may increase. This will heat up the capacitor even more, and so on. Eventually (and this may take months) the device will be defective. Trouble shooting can be a pain; a simple capacitance meter uses small currents and will therefore not notice that the ESR has increased. How can we measusre the ESR? The are special ESR meters available for this purpose, but these are pretty expensive. Most of the time we only need an indication. We can connect the capacitor to a power supply via a known resistor R and a switch. If the switch is open, the voltage across the capacitor and ESR will be 0V. On the momen the switch is closed, the capacitor is still empty. The voltage we measure across the capacitor is therefore equal to the voltage across its ESR. If that voltage is equal to half the supply voltage, the ESR must be equal to the known resistor R. Of course: the lower the voltage, the lower the ESR must be. The disadvantage of this method is that the power supply must be able to deliver the current peak. Moreover, we must also include the internal resistance of the power supply in our calculations. That's why we often use the opposite method: we charge a capacitor to a certain voltage and then discharge it via a know resistor. Of couse: the higher the voltage at the moment of discharge, the lower the ESR must be. Please find below a picture of both methods. Resistor R is 10Ω. The supply voltage is 1V.

At t=0, the voltage across the ESR is about 0.34V. So ESR/(R+ESR)=0.34 => ESR=R(0.34/(1-0.34)) = 10(0.34/0.66) = 5.2Ω. At t=100us, the capacitor is discharged via the same resistor R. The voltage immediately drops to 0.66V. So R/(ESR+R)=0.66 => ESR=R((1-0.66)/0.66) = 10(0.34/0.66) = 5.2Ω.

Timer circuits

Now we'll exchange the AC voltage source for a 1V DC voltage source. Since the frequency is 0Hz, XC is infinite, so there will be no current flow. That's true, but not for the first period of time after connecting the voltage source as we already saw in the introduction of this chapter. Assume that capacitor C is completely discharged: VC=0 => VR=1V. So the current flow though resistor R will be 1mA. Having nowhere else to go to, this current will flow 'through' the capacitor, charging it. While the capacitor is charging, the voltage across it raises, leaving less voltage for resistor R. This means that the current flow decreases. Suppose that after T seconds, the capacitor is half full: VC=0.5V. In that case VR=0.5V => IR = IC = 0.5mA. So after 2T seconds, the capacitor will not be completely charged since the current flow isn't 1mA anymore. To calculate the voltage at any given time, use the following equation. VB is the voltage of the DC voltage source. t is the time in seconds since the capacitor was connected to the voltage source. When t=RC, -t/(RC) will be -1 and VC = 0.63V, so the capacitor will be 63% full. This time is referred to as the 'RC time'. RC circuits are often used in timers, for example in a simple burglar alarm:

When you enter your own house, you don't want the alarm to go off immediately; you want to have some time to switch it off. In the circuit above you have R·C = 100k·100u = 10 seconds to do that. After 10 seconds the voltage across the capacitor will raise above 0.63V, and a switch will close causing the flash light to give alarm.

Types of capacitors
There are generally two types of capacitors: polarized and bipolar. Polarized capacitors have a positive and a negative terminal; bipolar capacitors don't. In polarized capacitors the insulator between the plates is usually an electrolyte; hence the name electrolytic capacitors, or electro's. The electrolyte enables manufacturers to create large value capacitors with small dimensions. That's why you'll always see electro's with relatively large values: 1uF and above.