Component of the Month: The Capacitor

Component of the Month: The Capacitor

Makezine_COTM_Capacitor-BadgeI’m super excited for this month’s component: the capacitor! It’s an electronic component that stores a small amount of energy in an electrical field. Caps make up a very diverse family of components! As usual, we start off our coverage with an excerpt from Charles Platt’s stellar Encyclopedia of Electronic Components, Vol. 1.

What It Does

A capacitor connected across a DC power source will accumulate a charge, which then persists after the source is disconnected. In this way, the capacitor stores (and can then discharge) energy like a small rechargeable battery. The charge/discharge rate is extremely fast but can be limited by a series resistor, which enables the capacitor to be used as a timing component in many electronic circuits.

A capacitor can also be used to block DC current while it passes pulses, or electrical “noise,” or alternating current, or audio signals, or other wave forms. This capability enables it to smooth the output voltage provided by power supplies; to remove spikes from signals that would otherwise tend to cause spurious triggering of components in digital circuits; to adjust the frequency response of an audio circuit; or to couple separate components or circuit elements that must be protected from transmission of DC current.

cap1Schematic symbols for capacitors are shown to the right. At top-left is a nonpolarized capacitor, while the other two indicate that a polarized capacitor must be used, and must be oriented as shown. The variant at the bottom is most commonly used in Europe. Confusingly, the nonpolarized symbol may also be used to identify a polarized capacitor, if a + sign is added. The polarized symbols are sometimes printed without + signs, but the symbols still indicate that polarity must be observed.

How It Works

In its simplest form, a capacitor consists of two plates, each with a lead attached to it for connection with a DC power source. The plates are separated by a thin, insulating layer known as the dielectric, which is usually a solid or a paste but may be liquid, gel, gaseous, or vacuum.

cap2The plates in most capacitors are made from thin metal film or metallized plastic film. To minimize the size of the component, the film may be rolled up to form a compact cylindrical package, or multiple flat sections may be interleaved.

Electrons from the power source will migrate onto the plate attached to the negative side of the source, and will tend to repel electrons from the other plate. This may be thought of as creating electron holes in the other plate or as attracting positive charges. When the capacitor is disconnected from the power source, the opposite charges on its plates will persist in equilibrium as a result of their mutual attraction, although the voltage will gradually dissipate as a result of leakage, either through the dielectric or via other pathways.


The three most common packages for capacitors are cylindrical, disc, and rectangular tablet.

cap3A cylindrical capacitor may have axial leads (a wire attached to each end) or radial leads (both wires emerging from one end). Radial capacitors are more widely used as they allow easy insertion into a circuit board. The capacitor is usually packaged in a small aluminum can, closed at one end, capped with an insulating disc at the other end, and wrapped in a thin layer of insulating plastic.

A disc capacitor (sometimes referred to as a button capacitor) is usually encased in an insulating ceramic compound, and has radial leads. Modern small-value ceramic capacitors are more likely to be dipped in epoxy, or to be square tablets.

cap4A surface-mount capacitor is square or rectangular, usually a few millimeters in each dimension, with two conductive pads or contacts at opposite ends. It appears almost identical to a surface-mount resistor. Larger-value capacitors are inevitably bigger but can still be designed for surface-mount applications.

Many capacitors are nonpolarized, meaning that they are insensitive to polarity. However, electrolytic and tantalum capacitors must be connected “the right way around” to any DC voltage source. If one lead is longer than the other, it must be the “more positive” lead. A mark or band at one end of the capacitor indicates the “more negative” end. Tantalum capacitors are likely to indicate the positive lead by using a + sign on the body of the component.

An arrow printed on the side of a capacitor usually points to the “more negative” terminal. In an aluminum can with axial leads, the lead at one end will have an insulating disc around it while the other lead will be integral with the rounded end of the can. The wire at the insulated end must be “more positive” than the wire at the other end.

A capacitor array contains two or more capacitors that are isolated from each other internally and accessed by external contacts. They are sold in surface-mount format and also in through-hole chips of DIP (dual-inline package) or SIP (single-inline package) format. The internal components may be connected in one of three configurations: isolated, common-bus, or dual-ended common bus. Technically the isolated configuration should be referred to as a capacitor array, but in practice, all three configurations are usually referred to as capacitor networks.

cap5Principal Types

Electrolytic capacitors are relatively cheap, compact, and available in large values. These attributes have made them a popular choice in consumer electronics, especially for power supplies. The capacitive capability of an electrolytic is refreshed by periodic application of voltage. A moist paste inside the capacitor is intended to improve the dielectric performance when voltage is applied, but can dry out during a period of years. If an electrolytic is stored for 10 years or so, it may allow a short circuit between its leads when power is applied to it.

cap6A bipolar electrolytic is a single package containing two electrolytic capacitors in series, end-to-end, with opposed polarities, so that the combination can be used where the voltage of a signal fluctuates above and below 0VDC. It consists of two electrolytics in series, with opposing polarities. This type of component is likely to have “BP” (bipolar) or “NP” (nonpolarized) printed on its shell. It may be used in audio circuits where polarized capacitors are normally unsuitable, and is likely to be cheaper than non-electrolytic alternatives. However, it suffers from the same weaknesses as all electrolytics.

cap7Tantalum capacitors are compact but relatively expensive, and can be vulnerable to voltage spikes. They are sensitive to application of the wrong polarity. Typically they are epoxy-dipped rather than mounted inside a small aluminum can like electrolytics, and consequently the electrolyte may be less likely to evaporate and dry out. Surface-mount tantalum capacitors are decreasing in popularity as large-value ceramic capacitors are becoming available, with smaller dimensions and lower equivalent series resistance.

cap8Single-layer ceramic capacitors are often used for bypass, and are suitable for high-frequency or audio applications. Their value is not very stable with temperature, although the “NPO” variants are more stable. Multilayer ceramic capacitors are more compact than single-layer ceramic, and consequently are becoming increasingly popular.


The electrical storage capacity of a capacitor is measured in farads, universally represented by the letter F. A capacitor that can be charged with a potential difference between its plates of 1 volt, in a time of 1 second, during which it draws 1 amp, has a capacitance of 1 farad.

Because the farad is a large unit, capacitors in electronic circuits almost always have fractional values: microfarads (μF), nanofarads (nF), and picofarads (pF). The Greek letter μ (mu) should be used in the μF abbreviation, but a lowercase letter u is often substituted. Thus, for example, 10uF means the same as 10μF.


1F = 1,000,000μF, and 1μF = 1,000,000pF. Therefore, 1 farad is equivalent to 1 trillion picofarads—a very wide range of possible values. See Figure 16, “Equivalent values for picofards, nanofarads, and microfarads. The nF unit is used primarily in Europe.” and Figure 17, “Equivalent values for microfarads and farads. Because the farad is such a large unit, electronic circuits almost always use fractional values.” for charts showing equivalent values in different units.

The nF unit is more common in Europe than in the United States. A 1nF capacitance is often expressed in the US as 0.001μF or 1,000pF. Similarly, a 10nF capacitance is almost always expressed as a 0.01μF, and a 0.1nF capacitance is more likely to be expressed as 100pF.

European schematics may use value-symbols as a substitute for decimal points. For example, a 4.7pF capacitor may be shown as 4p7, a 6.8nF capacitor may be shown as 6n8, and a 3.3μF capacitor may be shown as 3μ3.

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