Every now and then you need to make your own capacitor. That includes choosing a dielectric for it, the insulating material that goes between the plates. One dielectric material that I use a lot is paraffin wax which can be found in art stores and is normally used for making candles. Another is resin, the easiest to find being automotive resin used for automotive body repairs.
The problem is that you sometimes need to do the calculations for the capacitor dimensions ahead of time, rather than just throwing something together. And that means you need to know the dielectric constant of the dielectric material. That’s something that the manufacturer of the paraffin wax that makes it for art stores won’t know, nor will the manufacturers of automotive body repair resin. The intended customers just don’t care.
It’s therefore left up to you to measure the dielectric constant yourself, and here I’ll talk about the method I use for doing that.
Once upon a time I was a real mad scientist. I was into non-conventional propulsion with the idea of somehow interacting with the quantum vacuum fluctuations, the zero point energy field. I was into it despite having only a vague understanding of what that was and without regard for how unlikely or impossible anyone said it was to interact with on a macro scale. But we all had to come from somewhere, and that was my introduction to the world of high voltages and homemade capacitors.
And along the way I made some pretty interesting, or different, capacitors which I’ll talk about here.
Large Wax Cylindrical Capacitor
As the photos show, this capacitor is fairly large, appearing like a thick chunk of paraffin wax sandwiched between two wood disks. Inside, the lead wires go to two aluminum flashing disks that are the capacitor plates spaced 2.5cm (1 inch) apart. But in between them the dielectric consists of seven more aluminum flashing disks separated by plain cotton sheets immersed in more paraffin wax. See, I told you these capacitors were different.
Big wax cylindrical capacitor
Exposed wax of the capacitor
The experiment and the capacitor’s interior
I won’t go into the reasoning behind the construction — it was all shot-in-the-dark ideas, backed by hope, unicorn hairs, and practically no theory. The interesting thing here was the experiment itself. It worked!
I sat the capacitor on top of a tall 4″ diameter ABS pipe which in turn sat on a digital scale on the floor. High voltage in the tens of kilovolts was put across the capacitor through thickly insulated wires. The power supply contained a flyback transformer and Cockcroft-Walton voltage multiplier at the HV side. As I dialed up the voltage, the scale showed a reducing weight. I had weight-loss!
But after a few hours of reversing polarities and flipping the capacitor the other way around and taking plenty of notes, I found the cause. The weight-loss happened only when the feed wires were oriented with the top one feeding downward as shown in the diagram, but there was no weight change when the top wire was oriented horizontally. I’d seen high voltage wires moving before and here it was again, producing what looked like weight-loss on the scale.
But that’s only one of the interesting capacitors I’ve made. After the break we get into gravitators, polysulfide and even barium titanate.
If you enjoy building radio projects you may have noticed something slightly worrying over the last few years in your component supply. Variable capacitors are no longer as plentiful as they used to be. There was a time when all radio receivers contained at least one, now with the advent of the varicap diode and the frequency synthesiser the traditional tuning capacitor is a rare breed. They are still made, but they’re not cheap and they won’t appear so readily in your junk box any more.
Fortunately a variable capacitor is a surprisingly simple device, and one you can make yourself if you are of a mind to do so. [Patrick] did just that with his home-made capacitor, in this case of a few tens of pF and suitable as a low-power trimmer capacitor or in a single-chip FM radio.
Rather than make a set of interlocking vanes as you’d find in a commercial design, he has gone for a screw in a tube. The capacitance is set by the length by which the screw is inserted into the tube. And his tube is not a tube in the traditional sense, instead he has used a coil of enamelled copper wire wound on the screw thread, whose insulation forms the dielectric. It looks wrong to use a coil in this way as you’d expect a similar coil to form the inductive part of a tuned circuit, but this coil is shorted out to prevent its inductance becoming a factor at the frequency in question.
It’s evidently not the answer to all variable capacitor problems, but it’s a neat piece of lateral thinking and it will make a simple working capacitor from readily available parts.
The pioneering years in the history of capacitors was a time when capacitors were used primarily for gaining an early understanding of electricity, predating the discovery even of the electron. It was also a time for doing parlor demonstrations, such as having a line of people holding hands and discharging a capacitor through them. The modern era of capacitors begins in the late 1800s with the dawning of the age of the practical application of electricity, requiring reliable capacitors with specific properties.
One such practical use was in Marconi’s wireless spark-gap transmitters starting just before 1900 and into the first and second decade. The transmitters built up a high voltage for discharging across a spark gap and so used porcelain capacitors to withstand that voltage. High frequency was also required. These were basically Leyden jars and to get the required capacitances took a lot of space.
In 1909, William Dubilier invented smaller mica capacitors which were then used on the receiving side for the resonant circuits in wireless hardware.
Early mica capacitors were basically layers of mica and copper foils clamped together as what were called “clamped mica capacitors”. These capacitors weren’t very reliable though. Being just mica sheets pressed against metal foils, there were air gaps between the mica and foils. Those gap allowed for oxidation and corrosion, and meant that the distance between plates was subject to change, altering the capacitance.
In the 1920s silver mica capacitors were developed, ones where the mica is coated on both sides with the metal, eliminating the air gaps. With a thin metal coating instead of thicker foils, the capacitors could also be made smaller. These were very reliable. Of course we didn’t stop there. The modern era of capacitors has been marked by one breakthrough after another for a fascinating story. Let’s take a look.
The history of capacitors starts in the pioneering days of electricity. I liken it to the pioneering days of aviation when you made your own planes out of wood and canvas and struggled to leap into the air, not understanding enough about aerodynamics to know how to stay there. Electricity had a similar period. At the time of the discovery of the capacitor our understanding was so primitive that electricity was thought to be a fluid and that it came in two forms, vitreous electricity and resinous electricity. As you’ll see below, it was during the capacitor’s early years that all this changed.
The history starts in 1745. At the time, one way of generating electricity was to use a friction machine. This consisted of a glass globe rotated at a few hundred RPM while you stroked it with the palms of your hands. This generated electricity on the glass which could then be discharged. Today we call the effect taking place the triboelectric effect, which you can see demonstrated here powering an LCD screen.
If you build electronic circuits on a regular basis the chances are you will have used capacitors many times. They are a standard component along with the resistor whose values are lifted off the shelf without a second thought. We use them for power supply smoothing and decoupling, DC blocking, timing circuits, and many more applications.
A capacitor though is not simply a blob with two wires emerging from it and a couple of parameters: working voltage and capacitance. There is a huge array of capacitor technologies and materials with different properties. And while almost any capacitor with the right value can do the job in most cases, you’ll find that knowing more about these different devices can help you make something that doesn’t just do the job, but does the best possible job. If you’ve ever had to chase a thermal stability problem or seek out the source of those extra dBs of noise for example you will appreciate this.
He started with a home-made crucible that you maybe wouldn’t want to carry around in public as it bears more than a passing resemblance to a pipe bomb. Into that he packed his dog hair and lint, along with a generous helping of ammonia. An hour or two in a woodstove glowing red, and he’d made a rod of mostly carbon with the required high surface area. He sawed off a carbon slice, bathed it in lithium sulphate and potassium iodide electrolyte, and with the addition of a couple of pieces of stainless steel he had a supercapacitor.
Full details of his build can be found on the hackaday.io pages linked above, but there is also a handy YouTube video below the break.