Inside the capacitor, the terminals connect to two metal plates separated by a non-conducting substance, or dielectric. You can easily make a capacitor from two pieces of aluminum foil and a piece of paper. It won’t be a particularly good capacitor in terms of its storage capacity, but it will work.
In theory, the dielectric can be any non-conductive substance. However, for practical applications, specific materials are used that best suit the capacitor’s function. Mica, ceramic, cellulose, porcelain, Mylar, Teflon and even air are some of the non-conductive materials used. The dielectric dictates what kind of capacitor it is and for what it is best suited. Depending on the size and type of dielectric, some capacitors are better for high frequency uses, while some are better for high voltage applications. Capacitors can be manufactured to serve any purpose, from the smallest plastic capacitor in your calculator, to an ultra capacitor that can power a commuter bus. NASA uses glass capacitors to help wake up the space shuttle’s circuitry and help deploy space probes. Here are some of the various types of capacitors and how they are used.
- Air – Often used in radio tuning circuits
- Mylar – Most commonly used for timer circuits like clocks, alarms and counters
- Glass – Good for high voltage applications
- Ceramic – Used for high frequency purposes like antennas, X-ray and MRI machines
- Super capacitor – Powers electric and hybrid cars
In an electronic circuit, a capacitor is shown like this:
When you connect a capacitor to a battery, here’s what happens:
- The plate on the capacitor that attaches to the negative terminal of the battery accepts electrons that the battery is producing.
- The plate on the capacitor that attaches to the positive terminal of the battery loses electrons to the battery.
Once it’s charged, the capacitor has the same voltage as the battery (1.5 volts on the battery means 1.5 volts on the capacitor). For a small capacitor, the capacity is small. But large capacitors can hold quite a bit of charge. You can find capacitors as big as soda cans that hold enough charge to light a flashlight bulb for a minute or more.
Even nature shows the capacitor at work in the form of lightning. One plate is the cloud, the other plate is the ground and the lightning is the charge releasing between these two “plates.” Obviously, in a capacitor that large, you can hold a huge amount of charge!
Let’s say you hook up a capacitor like this:
Here you have a battery, a light bulb and a capacitor. If the capacitor is pretty big, what you will notice is that, when you connect the battery, the light bulb will light up as current flows from the battery to the capacitor to charge it up. The bulb will get progressively dimmer and finally go out once the capacitor reaches its capacity. If you then remove the battery and replace it with a wire, current will flow from one plate of the capacitor to the other. The bulb will light initially and then dim as the capacitor discharges, until it is completely out.
For more Detail: How Capacitors Work