A Capacitor is a device for storing Electrical Charge. A Capacitor consists of two parallel plates separated by an insulator. The symbol for a Capacitor is shown below:-

Once connected within the circuit, negative Charge builds up on one of the electrodes, causing a positive Charge to build up on the other electrode. This causes Energy to be stored between the plates.

Capacitors and Thunderstorms

A natural example of a Capacitor is a Thunderstorm. During a thunderstorm, supercooled water droplets and ice crystals rub together generating a massive negative Charge within the cloud. When this Charge reaches a large enough size, there is an electrical discharge between the cloud and the ground which is called Lightning.

The thunderstorm and the ground act as the two plates in a Capacitor, with the air acting as the insulator between.

The amount of Charge stored by a thunderstorm is massive, so when this is discharged over a very short time (~50 microseconds average), this generates a very high Current (1000s of Amperes) which heat body tissue and is partly why Lightning is so dangerous.

The video below shows the effects of being struck by Lightning (on a Gherkin):-

Capacitors in Circuits

The diagram below shows a simple Capacitor circuit:-

At the first instant that the switch is closed and Current starts to flow, there is no Voltage across the Capacitor (VC reads 0 V). This means that the Resistor has the full Voltage share of the Battery (VR reads 12 V).

As the Capacitor begins to store Charge, the Voltage across the plates increases (VC reading increases). This means that the Voltage share across the Resistor decreases (VR reading decreases).

The Capacitor will continue to store Charge until the Voltage across it is equal to the supply Voltage (VC reads 12 V), at which point no more Current will flow.

Capacitor Graphs

As the Voltage across the Capacitor increases, the Potential difference between the battery and Capacitor gets smaller, so the Current decreases. This causes the curved shape of the following Voltage graphs of a charging Capacitor:-

Note - This shape is called an exponential curve. This type of curve will tend towards a set value, but will only reach it at infinity. In a real-life situation, however, the value will be reached as all meters that scientists use will round the number to a certain degree.

'Filling' a Capacitor

To describe how a capacitor stores charge, it can be useful to use the analogy of a bucket being filled using a hose.

The time taken to fully charge a Capacitor depends on two quantities:-

The Capacitance of the Capacitor (the size of the bucket)

The Resistance in the circuit (the rate of water flowing into the bucket)

The larger the Capacitance of the Capacitor, the longer it takes to charge up. Similarly, the larger the Resistance of the circuit, the longer it takes to charge up.

Capacitor Case Study : Traffic Lights

One function of a Capacitor in a circuit is to act as a time-delay system. An example of this is the button pushed at a Pelican Crossing. The button is pushed and after a certain length of time, the traffic lights change.

The diagram below shows the Transistor circuit that would allow this system to work:-

When the switch is closed, the Capacitor is initially uncharged. This means that the voltage across the Capacitor is equal to zero and the Transistor is off.

As the Capacitor charges, the Voltage across it increases. After a short time, when the Voltage across the Capacitor reaches 0.7 V, the Transistor 'turns on' and the LED lights.