Rough Guide
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Capacitors are stores for electrical charges. Like tiny batteries they can cause a current to flow in a circuit. But they can only do this for a short time, they cannot deliver a sustained current. They can be charged up with energy from a battery, then return that energy back later. The capacitance of a capacitor is a measure of how much energy or charge it can hold.

In its simplest form a capacitor consists of two metal plates separated by a small gap. Air or another non-conductor fills the gap. The bigger the plates the bigger the capacitance. To stop capacitors becoming impractically large however they are often rolled up like Swiss rolls.

capacitor dielectric

Another way of increasing the capacitance is to put some non-conducting material between the plates. This is called a dielectric. When the capacitor charges up the protons and electrons in the dielectric separate out a little which allows more charge to be stored on the plates than usual. Dielectrics are made of various materials. Ceramic dielectrics are common and are used in the MadLab capacitors.

Capacitance is measured in Farads after the scientist Michael Faraday. A Farad is quite a big unit. The capacitors in a Flashing Lights have capacitances of about 50 millionths of a Farad (and they're quite powerful capacitors). The symbol for a millionth is the Greek letter mu which you will often see represented as a 'u' (the closest to the Greek letter on an ordinary typewriter).

Capacitors come in two flavours, electrolytic and non-electrolytic. Electrolytic capacitors use a special liquid or paste which is formed into a very thin dielectric in the factory. Non-electrolytic capacitors have ordinary dielectrics.

Electrolytic capacitors can store more charge than non-electrolytic capacitors but there are a couple of problems. They must be connected the right way around in a circuit or they won't work (anyone who has soldered a capacitor in a Flashing Lights backwards will know this). They also slowly leak their charge, and they have quite large tolerances. A 47uF capacitor might actually be as high as 80uF or as low as 10uF. In the Flashing Lights kit the capacitors control how fast the lights flash. You might have noticed that the rate can vary quite a lot from board to board and this is the reason.

When a capacitor is connected to a battery it begins to charge. The current flows rapidly at first. Charge builds up on the two plates, negative charge on one plate and the same amount of positive charge on the other. The positive charge results from electrons leaving one of the plates and leaving positively-charged protons behind. But as the capacitor fills with charge it starts to oppose the current flowing in the circuit. It is as if another battery were working against the first. The current decreases and the capacitor charges more slowly. The plates become full of charge and it takes practically forever to squeeze the last drop in.

charging a capacitor through a resistor

If a capacitor is shorted then it discharges. Charge flows out of the capacitor rapidly at first, then progressively more slowly. The last little drop just trickles out. The speed at which the capacitor empties depends on the resistance that connects across it. If a simple wire shorts out a capacitor then it empties in a flash, often with a spark if it's a big capacitor.

We've seen that when a capacitor is fully charged the current stops. In other words a continuous current cannot flow for ever through a capacitor. A continuous current is called a direct current or d.c.

An alternating current (a.c.) however can flow through a capacitor. An alternating current is one which is continually changing its direction. Mains is a.c. and changes its direction 50 times a second. An alternating current continually charges and discharges a capacitor and hence is able to keep flowing.



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