Types of Capacitors Explained

By R.W. Hurst, Editor

Types of Capacitors
Capacitors come in all shapes and sizes and are usually marked with their value in farads. They may also be divided into two groups: fixed and variable. The fixed capacitors, which have approximately constant capacitance, may then be further divided according to the type of dielectric used. Some varieties are: paper, oil, mica, electrolytic and ceramic capacitors. Figure 1 shows the schematic symbols for a fixed and variable capacitor.

Fig. 1 - Schematic symbols for a fixed and variable capacitor.


Fixed Capacitors
Mica Capacitors The fixed mica capacitor is made of metal foil plates that are separated by sheets of mica, which form the dielectric. The whole assembly is covered in molded plastic, which keeps out moisture. Mica is an excellent dielectric and will withstand higher voltages than paper without allowing arcing between the plates. Common values of mica capacitors range from approximately 50 micromicrofarads, to about 0.02 microfarads.

The ceramic capacitor is constructed with materials, such as titanium acid barium for a dielectric. Internally these capacitors are not constructed as a coil, so they are well suited for use in high frequency applications. They are shaped like a disk, available in very small capacitance values and very small sizes. This type is fairly small, inexpensive, and reliable. Both the ceramic and the electrolytic are the most widely available and used capacitor.

Two kinds of electrolytic capacitors are in use: (1) wet electrolytic and (2) dry electrolytic.

The wet electrolytic capacitor is designed of two metal plates separated by an electrolyte with an electrolyte dielectric, which is basically conductive salt in solvent. For capacitances greater than a few microfarads, the plate areas of paper or mica capacitors must become very large; thus, electrolytic capacitors are usually used instead. These units provide large capacitance in small physical sizes. Their values range from 1 to about 1,500 microfarads. Unlike the other types, electrolytic capacitors are generally polarized, with the positive lead marked with a “+” and the negative lead marked with a “−” and should only be subjected to direct voltage or pulsating direct voltage only.

The electrolyte in contact with the negative terminal, either in paste or liquid form, comprises the negative electrode. The dielectric is an exceedingly thin film of oxide deposited on the positive electrode of the capacitor. The positive electrode, which is an aluminum sheet, is folded to achieve maximum area. The capacitor is subjected to a forming process during manufacture, in which current is passed through it. The flow of current results in the deposit of the thin coating of oxide on the aluminum plate.

The close spacing of the negative and positive electrodes gives rise to the comparatively high capacitance value, but allows greater possibility of voltage breakdown and leakage of electrons from one electrode to the other.

The electrolyte of the dry electrolytic unit is a paste contained in a separator made of an absorbent material, such as gauze or paper. The separator not only holds the electrolyte in place but also prevents it from short circuiting the plates. Dry electrolytic capacitors are made in both cylindrical and rectangular block form and may be contained either within cardboard or metal covers. Since the electrolyte cannot spill, the dry capacitor may be mounted in any convenient position. Electrolytic capacitors are shown in Figure 2.

Fig. 2 - Electrolytic capacitors.


Similar to the electrolytic, these capacitors are constructed with a material called tantalum, which is used for the electrodes. They are superior to electrolytic capacitors, having better temperature and frequency characteristics. When tantalum powder is baked in order to solidify it, a crack forms inside. This crack is used to store an electrical charge. Like electrolytic capacitors, the tantalum capacitors are also polarized and are indicated with the “+” and “−” symbols.

Polyester Film
In this capacitor, a thin polyester film is used as a dielectric. These components are inexpensive, tem- perature stable, and widely used. Tolerance is approximately 5–10 percent. It can be quite large depending on capacity or rated voltage.


Oil Capacitors

In radio and radar transmitters, voltages high enough to cause arcing, or breakdown, of paper dielectrics are often used. Consequently, in these applications capacitors that use oil or oil impregnated paper for the dielectric material are preferred. Capacitors of this type are considerably more expensive than ordinary paper capacitors, and their use is generally restricted to radio and radar transmitting equipment. [Figure 3]

Fig. 3 - Oil capacitor.


Variable Capacitors
Variable capacitors are mostly used in radio tuning circuits, and they are sometimes called “tuning capacitors.” They have very small capacitance values, typically between 100pF and 500pF.

The trimmer is actually an adjustable or variable capacitor, which uses ceramic or plastic as a dielectric. Most of them are color coded to easily recognize their tunable size. The ceramic type has the value printed on them. Colors are: yellow (5pF), blue (7pF), white (10pF), green (30pF), and brown (60pf).

A voltage-variable capacitor or varactor is also known as a variable capacitance diode or a varicap. This device utilizes the variation of the barrier width in a reversed-biased diode. Because the barrier width of a diode acts as a non-conductor, a diode forms a capacitor when reversed biased. Essentially the N-type material becomes one plate and the junctions are the dielectric. If the reversed-bias voltage is increased, then the barrier width widens, effectively separating the two capacitor plates and reducing the capacitance.

Capacitors in Series
When capacitors are placed in series, the effective plate separation is increased and the total capacitance is less than that of the smallest capacitor. Additionally, the series combination is capable of withstanding a higher total potential difference than any of the individual capacitors. Figure 4 is a simple series circuit. The bottom plate of C1 and the top plate of C2 will be charged by electrostatic induction. The capacitors charge as current is established through the circuit. Since this is a series circuit, the current must be the same at all points. Since the current is the rate of flow of charge, the amount of charge (Q) stored by each capacitor is equal to the total charge. 

Fig. 4 - Simple series circuit.


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