Capacitance Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 9, 2011


Capacitance impedes the flow of ac charge carriers by temporarily storing the energy as an electrical field. This energy is given back later. Capacitance generally is not important in pure dc circuits, but it can have significance in circuits where dc is pulsating and not steady. Capacitance, like inductance, can appear when it is not wanted or intended. Capacitive effects become more evident as the frequency increases.

The Property Of Capacitance

Imagine two huge flat sheets of metal that are excellent electrical conductors. Suppose that they are each the size of the state of Nebraska and are placed one over the other, separated uniformly by a few centimeters of air. If these two sheets of metal are connected to the terminals of a battery, they will become charged, one positively and the other negatively. This will take a little while because the sheets are so big.

If the plates were small, they would both become charged almost instantly, attaining a potential difference equal to the voltage of the battery. However, because the plates are gigantic, it takes awhile for the negative plate to “fill up” with electrons, and it also takes some time for the positive plate to get electrons “sucked out.“

Ultimately, the potential difference between the two plates becomes equal to the battery voltage, and an electrical field exists in the space between the plates. This electrical field is small at first; the plates don’t charge right away. However, the field increases over a period of time, depending on how large the plates are, as well as on how far apart they are. Energy is stored in this electrical field. Capacitance is a manifestation of the ability of the plates, and of the space between them, to store this energy. In formulas, capacitance is symbolized by the italicized uppercase letter C .

Practical Capacitors

It is out of the question to make a capacitor of the preceding dimensions. However, two sheets or strips of foil can be placed one atop the other, separated by a thin, nonconducting sheet such as paper, and then the whole assembly can be rolled up to get a large effective surface area. When this is done, the electrical flux becomes great enough that the device exhibits significant capacitance. Two sets of several plates can be meshed together, with air in between them, and the resulting capacitance is significant at high ac frequencies.

In a capacitor, the electrical flux concentration is multiplied when a dielectric of a certain type is placed between the plates. Some plastics work well for this purpose. The dielectric increases the effective surface area of the plates so that a physically small component can be made to have a large capacitance. Capacitance is directly proportional to the surface area of the conducting plates or sheets. Capacitance is inversely proportional to the separation between conducting sheets; the closer the sheets are to each other, the greater is the capacitance. The capacitance also depends on the dielectric constant of the material between the plates. This is the electrostatic equivalent of magnetic permeability. A vacuum has a dielectric constant of 1. Dry air is about the same as a vacuum. Some substances have high dielectric constants that multiply the effective capacitance many times.

In theory, if the dielectric constant of a material is x , then placing that material between the plates of a capacitor will increase the capacitance by a factor of x compared with the capacitance when there is only dry air or a vacuum between the plates. In practice, this is true only if the dielectric is 100 percent efficient—if it does not turn any of the energy contained in the electrical field into heat. It is also true only if all the electrical lines of flux between the plates are forced to pass through the dielectric material. These are ideal scenarios, and while they can never be attained absolutely, many manufactured capacitors come close.

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