A capacitor or electrical condenser is a device used to store energy (electric charge) in an internal electric field. It is a passive electronic component and is commonly used in both electronic and analog/digital circuits. Every capacitor has the same basic structure: two conducting plates separated by an insulating dielectric located between them. The energy charge is stored in them when an electric current flows, and its dielectric must be made of a non-conducting material, such as plastic or ceramic.

How does a capacitor work

When placing an electrical capacitor in a circuit with an active current, the electrons from the negative side accumulate on the plate closest to them. When the plate can no longer hold them, they pass through the dielectric to the other plate, thus displacing the electrons back into the circuit through a discharge.

The conducting plates of the capacitor are connected to the terminals of the passive element, and the dielectric or insulating material is placed between both plates, which store the electric charge until a load is connected to the capacitor. The charge stored in a capacitor is directly proportional to the applied voltage or tension. Likewise, its capacity is proportional to the area of the plate and inversely proportional to the distance between both plates.

Another important factor of these devices is capacitance, which is the component’s ability to store energy in the form of electric charge. The capacitance value of an electrical capacitor is measured in farads and is the relationship between the stored electric charge and the voltage (potential difference) between them.

What is the purpose of a capacitor?

The function of a capacitor is to store energy that can be released quickly. Charging and discharging a capacitor is very useful, for example, for powering an electric motor and are very efficient in mechanisms that require a rapid increase in energy, such as the flash of a camera, motor starters, and car audio amplifiers. In circuits where the voltage of the electric current fluctuates a lot, the function of the intermediate capacitor is to level it out, as its charge stores excess energy when the voltage increases. Subsequently, the energy stored in a capacitor is released when the voltage decreases.

Another function of a capacitor is to generate delays in electrical circuits in activities that require it, by establishing delays in the flow of electric current. This is extremely useful when tasks need to be carried out at constant periods and with determined frequencies or time intervals.

Additionally, a capacitor can smooth out the voltages of the electric current. If there are waves or ripples in a circuit with direct voltage, the charge of a large capacitor can absorb the peaks and fill in the valleys. Thanks to this ability to regulate the frequency of the electric current and create delays to give a specific rhythm to tasks, capacitors have become a fundamental element in the development of electronic devices.

capacitor o condensador

Types of Capacitors

Due to their multiple uses and the variety of their electrical, physical, and economic characteristics, there are currently a large number of types of capacitors. There are capacitors made with plates of various materials, diverse shapes, and a wide range of dielectrics. Among the most common are the electrolytic capacitor, the ceramic capacitor, capacitors in series and parallel, and the polyester capacitor, among others.

  • Electrolytic Capacitor: This capacitor uses an electrolyte that acts as the first armature or cathode (negative electrode), which, upon receiving an adequate voltage, deposits an insulating layer on the anode (i.e., the can or second armature). It is commonly used as an oscillator, as a frequency generator, or to modulate the signal in power supplies.

Electrolytic capacitors release large amounts of energy in a short time, so they are used as starting capacitors for electric motors that require a high initial power. Although their capacity can            be very high, an electrolytic capacitor does not work well with alternating current because reverse polarization produces a short circuit between the electrolyte and the can, causing the                       temperature to increase to the point where it can explode. There are several types of electrolytic capacitors, according to their components (electrolytes and second armature), among them             are aluminum and tantalum:

  • Aluminum Capacitor: It is a polarized capacitor in which the electrolyte is a solution of boric acid and its can is aluminum. Its optimal operation is at low frequencies and it is usually used in audio equipment and switched-mode power supplies.
  • Tantalum Capacitor: It uses tantalum as the anode and has better capacity per volume than an aluminum electrolytic capacitor since using this chemical element makes the dielectric layer very thin.
  • Polyester Capacitor: These capacitors have high power and are very responsive. They have thin polyester film as the dielectric element and use aluminum to form their armatures. Their most common uses are in DC current connection and disconnection applications, for filtering low-tolerance signals, and audio systems. They have advantages over paper capacitors for their ability to reduce their size, as well as having high performance and low power loss.
  • Ceramic Capacitor: They use various types of ceramics as the dielectric element and can be formed by a single dielectric sheet or by stacked sheets. Depending on their characteristics, they can operate at different frequencies, including microwave frequencies. Thanks to the specific properties of ceramics, they have very few losses.
  • Series and Parallel Capacitors: Those referred to as “in series” are two or more capacitors connected in a line. The positive of each capacitor is connected to the negative plate of the next capacitor, and they have the same charge and equal charging current. Meanwhile, capacitors in parallel are also two or more capacitors, but connected in parallel, as their terminals are connected to the terminal of another capacitor or capacitors. They have the same voltage, as well as a common voltage supply.

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