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Home » GATE Study Material » Electrical Engineering » Electrical Elements » Capacitors


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Why Are Capacitors Important?

       The capacitor is a widely used electrical component.  It has several features that make it useful and important:

  • A capacitor can store energy, so capacitors are often found in power supplies.

  • A capacitor has a voltage that is proportional to the charge (the integral of the current) that is stored in the capacitor, so a capacitor can be used to perform interesting computations in op-amp circuits, for example.

  • Circuits with capacitors exhibit frequency-dependent behavior so that circuits that amplify certain frequencies selectively can be built.

What Is A Capacitor?

        Capacitors are two-terminal electrical elements.  Capacitors are essentially two conductors, usually conduction plates - but any two conductors - separated by an insulator - a dielectric - with conection wires connected to the two conducting plates.

        Capacitors occur naturally. On printed circuit boards two wires running parallel to each other on opposite sides of the board form a capacitor. That's a capacitor that comes about inadvertently, and we would normally prefer that it not be there. But, it's there.  It has electrical effects, and it will affect your circuit.  You need to understand what it does.

        At other times, you specifically want to use capacitors because of their frequency dependent behavior. There are lots of situations where we want to design for some specific frequency dependent behavior. Maybe you want to filter out some high frequency noise from a lower frequency signal. Maybe you want to filter out power supply frequencies in a signal running near a 60 Hz line. You're almost certainly going to use a circuit with a capacitor.

        Sometimes you can use a capacitor to store energy.  In a subway car, an insulator at a track switch may cut off power from the car for a few feet along the line. You might use a large capacitor to store energy to drive the subway car through the insulator in the power feed.

        Capacitors are used for all these purposes, and more. In this chapter you're going to start learning about this important electrical component. Remember capacitors do the following and more.

  • Store energy

  • Change their behavior with frequency

  • Come about naturally in circuits and can change a circuit's behavior


        You need to know what you should get from this lesson on capacitors.  Here's the story.

  • Given a capacitor,

    • Be able to write and use the voltage-current relationship for the capacitor,

    • Be able to compute the current through a capacitor when you know the voltage across a capacitor.

  • Given a capacitor that is charged,

    • Be able to compute the amount of energy that is stored in the capacitor.

      Capacitors and inductors are both elements that can store energy in purely electrical forms. These two elements were both invented early in electrical history. The capacitor appeared first as the legendary Leyden jar, a device that consisted of a glass jar with metal foil on the inside and outside of the jar, kind of like the picture below. This schematic/picture shows a battery attached to leads on the Leyden jar capacitor.

        Although this device first appeared in Leyden, a city in the Netherlands sometime before 1750. It was discovered by E. G. von Kleist and Pieter van Musschenbroek. Although it has been around for about 250 years, it has all of the elements of a modern capacitor, including:

  • Two conducting plates. That's the metallic foil in the Leyden jar.

  • An insulator that separates the plates so that they make no electrical contact.  That's the glass jar - the Leyden jar.

        The way the Leyden jar operated was that charge could be put onto both foil elements. If positive charge was put onto the inside foil, and negative charge on the outside foil, then the two charges would tend to hold each other in place. Modern capacitors are no different and usually consist of two metallic or conducting plates that are arranged in a way that permits charge to be bound to the two plates of the capacitor. A simple physical situation is the one shown at the right.

        If the top plate contains positive charge, and the bottom plate contains negative charge, then there is a tendency for the charge to be bound on the capacitor plates since the positive charge attracts the negative charge (and thereby keeps the negative charge from flowing out of the capacitor) and in turn, the negative charge tends to hold the positive charge in place. Once charge gets on the plates of a capacitor, it will tend to stay there, never moving unless there is a conductive path that it can take to flow from one plate to the other.

There is also a standard circuit symbol for a capacitor. The figure below shows a sketch of a physical capacitor, the corresponding circuit symbol, and the relationship between Q and V. Notice how the symbol for a capacitor captures the essence of the two plates and the insulating dielectric between the plates.

        Now, consider a capacitor that starts out with no charge on either plate. If the capacitor is connected to a circuit, then the same charge will flow into one plate as flows out from the other. The net result will be that the same amount of charge, but of opposite sign, will be on each plate of the capacitor. That is the usual situation, and we usually assume that if an amount of charge, Q, is on the positive plate then -Q is the amount of charge on the negative plate.

        The essence of a capacitor is that it stores charge.  Because they store charge they have the properties mentioned earlier - they store energy and they have frequency dependent behavior. When we examine charge storage in a capacitor we can understand other aspects of the behavior of capacitors.

        In a capacitor charge can accumulate on the two plates. Normally charge of opposite polarity accumulates on the two plates, positive on one plate and negative on the other. It is possible for that charge to stay there. The positive charge on one plate attracts and holds the negative charge on the other plate. In that situation the charge can stay there for a long time.

        That's it for this section. You now know pretty much what a capacitor is. What you need to learn yet is how the capacitor is used in a circuit - what it does when you use it. That's the topic of the next section. If you can learn that then you can begin to learn some of the things that you can do with a capacitor. Capacitors are a very interesting kind of component. Capacitors are one large reason why electrical engineers have to learn calculus, especially about derivatives.  In the next section you'll learn how capacitors influence voltage and current.

Voltage-Current Relationships In Capacitors

        There is a relationship between the charge on a capacitor and the voltage across the capacitor.  The relationship is simple. For most dielectric/insulating materials, charge and voltage are linearly related.

Q = C V



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