(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published August 29 2017)
Jacinta: We’re embarking on the clearly impossible task of learning about every aspect of clean (and sometimes dirty because nothing’s 100% clean or efficient) technology – batteries, photovoltaics, turbines, kilo/megawatt-hours, glass electrolytes, powerwalls, inverters, regen, generators, airfoils, planetary gear sets, step-up transformers, nacelles AND capacitors.
Canto; Enough to last us a lifetime at our slow pace. So what, in the name of green fundamentalism, is a capacitor?
Jacinta: Well I’ve checked this out with Madam Youtube…
Canto: Professor Google’s co-dependent…
Jacinta: And in one sense it’s simple, or at least it sounds simple. Capacitors store electric charge, and the capacitance of a capacitor relates to how much charge it can hold.
Canto: So how does it do that, and what’s the purpose of storing electric charge?
Jacinta: Okay now you’re complicating matters, but basic to all capacitors are two separated pieces of conducting material, usually metal. Connected to a battery, they store charge…
Canto: Which is a kind of potential energy, right?
Jacinta: Umm, I think so. So take your battery with its positive and negative terminals. Attach one of the bits of conducting material (metal) to the positive terminal and you’ll get a flow of negatively-charged electrons to that terminal, because of ye olde law of attraction. This somehow means that electrons are repelled from the negative terminal (which we’ve hooked up to the other bit of metal in the capacitor). So because the first strip of metal has lost electrons it has become positively charged, and the other bit of metal, having gained electrons, has an equal and opposite charge. So each piece of metal has the same magnitude of charge, measured in coulombs. This is regardless of the size and shape of the different metal bits.
Canto: But this process reaches a limit, though, yes? A kind of saturation point…
Jacinta: Well there comes a point where, yes, the accumulated charge just sits there. This is because there comes a kind of point of equilibrium between the positive battery terminal and the now positively charged strip of metal. The electrons are now caught between the attractive positive terminal and the positive strip.
Canto: Torn between two lovers, I know that foolish feeling.
Jacinta: So now if you remove the battery, so breaking the circuit, that accumulated charge will continue to sit there, because there’s nowhere to go.
Canto: And of course that accumulated or stored charge, or capacitance, is different for different capacitors.
Jacinta: And here’s where it gets really complicated, like you know, maths and formulae and equations. C = Q/V, capacitance equals the charge stored by the capacitor over the voltage across the capacitor. That charge (Q), in coulombs, is measured on one side of the capacitor, because the charges actually cancel each other out if you measure both sides, making a net charge of zero. So far, so uncomplicated, but try and get the following. When a capacitor stores charge it will create a voltage, which is essentially a difference in electric potential between the two metal strips. Now apparently (and you’ll have to take my word for this) electric potential is high near positive charges and low near negative charges. So if you bring these two differently charged strips into close proximity, that’s when you get a difference in electric potential – a voltage. If you allow a battery to fully charge up a capacitor, then the voltage across it (between the two strips) will be the same as the voltage in the battery. The capacitance, Q/V, coulombs per volt, is measured in farads, after Micky Faraday, the 19th century electrical wizz. I’m quoting this more or less verbatim from the Khan Academy video on capacitors, and I’m almost finished, but here comes the toughest bit, maths! Say you have a capacitor with a capacitance of 3 farads, and it’s connected to a nine volt battery, the charge stored will be 27 coulombs (3 = 27/9). 3 farads equals 27 coulombs of charge divided by nine volts, or 27 coulombs of charge is 3 farads times 9 volts. Or, if a 2 farad capacitor stores a charge of 6 coulombs, then the voltage across the capacitor will be 3 volts.
Canto: Actually, that’s not so difficult to follow, the maths is the easiest part for me… it’s more the concepts that get me, the very fact that matter has these electrical properties…
Jacinta: Okay here’s the last point made, more or less verbatim, on the Khan Academy video, something worth pondering:
You might think that as more charge gets stored on a capacitor, the capacitance must go up, but the value of the capacitance stays the same because as the charge increases, the voltage across that capacitor increases, which causes the ratio to stay the same. The only way to change the capacitance of a capacitor is to alter the physical characteristics of that capacitor (like making the pieces of metal bigger, or changing the distance between them).
Canto: Okay so to give an example, a capacitor might be connected to an 8 volt battery, but its capacitance is, say, 3 farads. It will be fully charged at 24 coulombs over 8 volts. The charge increases with the voltage, which has a maximum of 8. The ratio remains the same. Yet somehow I still don’t get it. So I’m going to have a look at another video to see if it helps. It uses the example of two metal plates. They start out as electrically neutral. You can’t force extra negativity, in the form of electrons, into one of these plates, because like charges repel, and they’ll be forced out again. But, according to the video, if you place another plate near the first, ‘as electrons accumulate in the first metal plate, they will repel the electrons in the second metal plate’, to which I want to respond, ‘but electrons aren’t accumulating, they’re being repelled’. But let’s just go with the electron flow. So the second metal plate becomes depleted of electrons and is positively charged. This means that it will attract the negatively charged first metal plate. According to the video, this makes it possible for the first plate to have more negative than positive particles, which I think has something to do with the fact that the electrons can’t jump from the first plate to the second, to create an equilibrium.
Jacinta: They’re kind of attracted by absence. That’s what they must mean by electric potential. It’s very romantic, really. But what you’ve failed to notice, is that a force is being continually applied, to counteract the repulsion of electrons from the first plate. If the force no longer applies then, yes, you won’t get that net negative charge in the first plate, and the consequent equal and opposite charge in the second. My question, though, is how can the capacitance increase by bringing the plates closer together? I can see how it can be changed by the size of the conducting material – more electrons, more electric potential. I suppose reducing the distance will increase the repulsive force…
Canto: Yes, let’s assume so. Any, a capacitor, which stores far less charge than a similarly-dimensioned battery can be used, I think, to briefly maintain power to, say, a LED bulb when it is disconnected from the battery. The capacitor, connected to the bulb will discharge its energy ‘across’ the bulb until it achieves equilibrium, which happens quite quickly, and the bulb will fade out. If the capacitor is connected to a number of batteries to achieve a higher voltage, the fully charged capacitor will take longer to discharge, keeping the light on for longer. If the metal plates are larger, the capacitor will take longer to charge up, and longer to discharge across the LED bulb. Finally, our second video (from a series of physics videos made by Eugene Khutoryansky) shows that you can place a piece of ‘special material’ between the two plates. This material contains molecules that change their orientation according to the charges on the plates. They exert a force which attracts more electrons to the negative plate, and repel them from the positive plate, which has the same effect as increasing the area of the plates – more charge for the same applied voltage.
Jacinta: An increase in capacitance.
Canto: Yes, and as you’ve surmised, bringing the two plates closer together increases the capacitance by attracting more electrons to the negatively charged plate and repelling them from the positively charged one – again, more charge for the same voltage.
Jacinta: So you can increase capacitance with a combo of the three – increased size, closer proximity, and that ‘special material’. Now, one advantage of capacitors over batteries is that they can charge up and discharge very quickly. Another is that they can endure many charge-discharge cycles. However they’re much less energy dense than batteries, and can only store a fraction of the energy of a same-sized battery. So the two energy sources have different uses.
Canto: Mmmm, and we’ll devote the next post to the uses to which capacitors can be put in electronics, and EVs and such.