There is a large variety of different types of capacitor available in the market place and each one has its own set of characteristics and applications
The types of capacitors available range from very small delicate trimming capacitors using in oscillator or radio circuits, up to large power metal-can type capacitors used in high voltage power correction and smoothing circuits.
The comparisons between the the different types of capacitor is generally made with regards to the dielectric used between the plates. Like resistors, there are also variable types of capacitors which allow us to vary their capacitance value for use in radio or “frequency tuning” type circuits.
Commercial types of capacitors are made from metallic foil interlaced with thin sheets of either paraffin-impregnated paper or Mylar as the dielectric material. Some capacitors look like tubes, this is because the metal foil plates are rolled up into a cylinder to form a small package with the insulating dielectric material sandwiched in between them.
Small capacitors are often constructed from ceramic materials and then dipped into an epoxy resin to seal them. Either way, capacitors play an important part in electronic circuits so here are a few of the more “common” types of capacitor available.
Dielectric Capacitors are usually of the variable type were a continuous variation of capacitance is required for tuning transmitters, receivers and transistor radios. Variable dielectric capacitors are multi-plate air-spaced types that have a set of fixed plates (the stator vanes) and a set of movable plates (the rotor vanes) which move in between the fixed plates.
The position of the moving plates with respect to the fixed plates determines the overall capacitance value. The capacitance is generally at maximum when the two sets of plates are fully meshed together. High voltage type tuning capacitors have relatively large spacings or air-gaps between the plates with breakdown voltages reaching many thousands of volts.
Variable Capacitor Symbol
As well as the continuously variable types, preset type variable capacitors are also available called Trimmers. These are generally small devices that can be adjusted or “pre-set” to a particular capacitance value with the aid of a small screwdriver and are available in very small capacitance’s of 500pF or less and are non-polarized.
Film Capacitor Type
Film Capacitors are the most commonly available of all types of capacitors, consisting of a relatively large family of capacitors with the difference being in their dielectric properties. These include polyester (Mylar), polystyrene, polypropylene, polycarbonate, metalised paper, Teflon etc. Film type capacitors are available in capacitance ranges from as small as 5pF to as large as 100uF depending upon the actual type of capacitor and its voltage rating. Film capacitors also come in an assortment of shapes and case styles which include:
- Wrap & Fill (Oval & Round) – where the capacitor is wrapped in a tight plastic tape and have the ends filled with epoxy to seal them.
- Epoxy Case (Rectangular & Round) – where the capacitor is encased in a moulded plastic shell which is then filled with epoxy.
- Metal Hermetically Sealed (Rectangular & Round) – where the capacitor is encased in a metal tube or can and again sealed with epoxy.
with all the above case styles available in both Axial and Radial Leads.
Film Capacitors which use polystyrene, polycarbonate or Teflon as their dielectrics are sometimes called “Plastic capacitors”. The construction of plastic film capacitors is similar to that for paper film capacitors but use a plastic film instead of paper. The main advantage of plastic film capacitors compared to impregnated-paper types is that they operate well under conditions of high temperature, have smaller tolerances, a very long service life and high reliability. Examples of film capacitors are the rectangular metalised film and cylindrical film & foil types as shown below.
Radial Lead Type
Axial Lead Type
The film and foil types of capacitors are made from long thin strips of thin metal foil with the dielectric material sandwiched together which are wound into a tight roll and then sealed in paper or metal tubes.
These film types require a much thicker dielectric film to reduce the risk of tears or punctures in the film, and is therefore more suited to lower capacitance values and larger case sizes.
Metalised foil capacitors have the conductive film metalised sprayed directly onto each side of the dielectric which gives the capacitor self-healing properties and can therefore use much thinner dielectric films. This allows for higher capacitance values and smaller case sizes for a given capacitance. Film and foil capacitors are generally used for higher power and more precise applications.
Ceramic Capacitors or Disc Capacitors as they are generally called, are made by coating two sides of a small porcelain or ceramic disc with silver and are then stacked together to make a capacitor. For very low capacitance values a single ceramic disc of about 3-6mm is used. Ceramic capacitors have a high dielectric constant (High-K) and are available so that relatively high capacitance’s can be obtained in a small physical size.
They exhibit large non-linear changes in capacitance against temperature and as a result are used as de-coupling or by-pass capacitors as they are also non-polarized devices. Ceramic capacitors have values ranging from a few picofarads to one or two microfarads, ( μF ) but their voltage ratings are generally quite low.
Ceramic types of capacitors generally have a 3-digit code printed onto their body to identify their capacitance value in pico-farads. Generally the first two digits indicate the capacitors value and the third digit indicates the number of zero’s to be added. For example, a ceramic disc capacitor with the markings 103 would indicate 10 and 3 zero’s in pico-farads which is equivalent to 10,000 pF or 10nF.
Likewise, the digits 104 would indicate 10 and 4 zero’s in pico-farads which is equivalent to 100,000 pF or 100nF and so on. So on the image of the ceramic capacitor above the numbers 154 indicate 15 and 4 zero’s in pico-farads which is equivalent to 150,000 pF or 150nF or 0.15μF. Letter codes are sometimes used to indicate their tolerance value such as: J = 5%, K = 10% or M = 20% etc.
Electrolytic Capacitors are generally used when very large capacitance values are required. Here instead of using a very thin metallic film layer for one of the electrodes, a semi-liquid electrolyte solution in the form of a jelly or paste is used which serves as the second electrode (usually the cathode).
The dielectric is a very thin layer of oxide which is grown electro-chemically in production with the thickness of the film being less than ten microns. This insulating layer is so thin that it is possible to make capacitors with a large value of capacitance for a small physical size as the distance between the plates, d is very small.
The majority of electrolytic types of capacitors are Polarised, that is the DC voltage applied to the capacitor terminals must be of the correct polarity, i.e. positive to the positive terminal and negative to the negative terminal as an incorrect polarisation will break down the insulating oxide layer and permanent damage may result.
All polarised electrolytic capacitors have their polarity clearly marked with a negative sign to indicate the negative terminal and this polarity must be followed.
Electrolytic Capacitors are generally used in DC power supply circuits due to their large capacitance’s and small size to help reduce the ripple voltage or for coupling and decoupling applications. One main disadvantage of electrolytic capacitors is their relatively low voltage rating and due to the polarisation of electrolytic capacitors, it follows then that they must not be used on AC supplies. Electrolytic’s generally come in two basic forms; Aluminium Electrolytic Capacitors and Tantalum Electrolytic Capacitors.
1. Aluminium Electrolytic Capacitors
There are basically two types of Aluminium Electrolytic Capacitor, the plain foil type and the etched foil type. The thickness of the aluminium oxide film and high breakdown voltage give these capacitors very high capacitance values for their size.
The foil plates of the capacitor are anodized with a DC current. This anodizing process sets up the polarity of the plate material and determines which side of the plate is positive and which side is negative.
The etched foil type differs from the plain foil type in that the aluminium oxide on the anode and cathode foils has been chemically etched to increase its surface area and permittivity. This gives a smaller sized capacitor than a plain foil type of equivalent value but has the disadvantage of not being able to withstand high DC currents compared to the plain type. Also their tolerance range is quite large at up to 20%. Typical values of capacitance for an aluminium electrolytic capacitor range from 1uF up to 47,000uF.
Etched foil electrolytic’s are best used in coupling, DC blocking and by-pass circuits while plain foil types are better suited as smoothing capacitors in power supplies. But aluminium electrolytic’s are “polarised” devices so reversing the applied voltage on the leads will cause the insulating layer within the capacitor to become destroyed along with the capacitor. However, the electrolyte used within the capacitor helps heal a damaged plate if the damage is small.
Since the electrolyte has the properties to self-heal a damaged plate, it also has the ability to re-anodize the foil plate. As the anodizing process can be reversed, the electrolyte has the ability to remove the oxide coating from the foil as would happen if the capacitor was connected with a reverse polarity. Since the electrolyte has the ability to conduct electricity, if the aluminium oxide layer was removed or destroyed, the capacitor would allow current to pass from one plate to the other destroying the capacitor, “so be aware”.
2. Tantalum Electrolytic Capacitors
Tantalum Electrolytic Capacitors and Tantalum Beads, are available in both wet (foil) and dry (solid) electrolytic types with the dry or solid tantalum being the most common. Solid tantalum capacitors use manganese dioxide as their second terminal and are physically smaller than the equivalent aluminium capacitors.
The dielectric properties of tantalum oxide is also much better than those of aluminium oxide giving a lower leakage currents and better capacitance stability which makes them suitable for use in blocking, by-passing, decoupling, filtering and timing applications.
Also, Tantalum Capacitors although polarised, can tolerate being connected to a reverse voltage much more easily than the aluminium types but are rated at much lower working voltages. Solid tantalum capacitors are usually used in circuits where the AC voltage is small compared to the DC voltage.
However, some tantalum capacitor types contain two capacitors in-one, connected negative-to-negative to form a “non-polarised” capacitor for use in low voltage AC circuits as a non-polarised device. Generally, the positive lead is identified on the capacitor body by a polarity mark, with the body of a tantalum bead capacitor being an oval geometrical shape. Typical values of capacitance range from 47nF to 470uF.
Aluminium & Tantalum Electrolytic Capacitor
Electrolytic’s are widely used capacitors due to their low cost and small size but there are three easy ways to destroy an electrolytic capacitor:
- Over-voltage – excessive voltage will cause current to leak through the dielectric resulting in a short circuit condition.
- Reversed Polarity – reverse voltage will cause self-destruction of the oxide layer and failure.
- Over Temperature – excessive heat dries out the electrolytic and shortens the life of an electrolytic capacitor.
In the next tutorial about Capacitors, we will look at some of the main characteristics to show that there is more to the Capacitor than just voltage and capacitance.