What is a capacitor used for?

Just as a bucket holds water, a capacitor holds charge. In fact, the world’s first capacitor was in the shape of a jar and was aptly named the Leyden jar. However, the latest capacitors do not look anywhere close to a jar. In its simplest form, a capacitor has two conductive plates separated by a dielectric. This helps maintain an electric charge between its plates. Depending on the type, different materials are used for the dielectric, such as plastic, paper, air, tantalum, polyester, ceramic, etc. The main purpose of the dielectric is to prevent the plates from touching each other.

The Leyden jar was invented in the 18th century, at the Netherlands University. It was a glass jar coated with metal on both the inside as well as the outside, with the glass effectively acting as the dielectric. The jar was topped off with a lid. A hole on the lid had a metal rod passing through it, with its other end connected to the inner coat of metal. The exposed end of the rod culminated in a metal ball. The metal ball and rod was used to charge the inner electrode of the jar electrically. Experiments in electricity used the Leyden jar for hundreds of years.

A capacitor can be used in a number of different ways, such as for storing digital data and analog signals. The telecommunication equipment industry uses variable capacitors to adjust the frequency and tuning of their communications equipment. You can measure a capacitor in terms of the voltage difference between its plates, as the two plates hold identical but opposite charge. However, unlike the battery, a capacitor does not generate electrons, and therefore, there is no current flow if the two plates are electrically connected. The electrically connected plates rearrange the charge between them, effectively neutralizing each other.

A naturally occurring phenomenon, lightning, works very similar to a capacitor. The cloud is one of the plates and the earth forms the other. Charge slowly builds-up between the cloud and the earth. When this creates more voltage than the air (the dielectric) can bear, the insulation breakdown causes a flow of charges between the two plates in the form of a bolt of lightning.

As there is only a dielectric between the two plates, a capacitor will block direct current but will allow alternating current to flow within its design parameters. If you hook up a capacitor across the terminals of a battery, there will not be any current flow after the capacitor has charged. However, alternating current or AC signal will flow through, impeded only by the reactance of the capacitor, which depends on the frequency of the signal. As the alternating current fluctuates, it causes the capacitor to charge and discharge, making it appear as if a current is flowing.

Capacitors can dump their charge at high speed, unlike batteries. That makes capacitors eminently suitable for generating a flash for photography. This technique is also used in big lasers to get very bright and instantaneous flashes. Eliminating ripples is another feather in the capacitor’s cap. The capacitor is a good candidate for evening out the voltage by filling in the troughs and absorbing the crests.