A Variable Capacitor For Not A Lot

There’s one component which used to be ubiquitous in every experimenter’s junk box, but nowadays unless you happen to be a radio amateur the chances are you may not have seen one in a long time, if ever. We’re talking of course about the air-dielectric variable capacitor, the tuning element for millions of radio receivers back in the day but now long ago replaced by much flimsier polymer-dielectric parts. There’s still a need for variable capacitors though, in particular a high-voltage variant for use in magnetic loop antennas. It’s something that [Ben] had a need for, which he solved with a clever combination of PCB material and 3D printing.

While the variable capacitors of yore invariably used intersecting vanes on a rotor, this one has two large parallel plates that intersect as one is moved over the other with a lead screw. It’s cheap and effective, and best of all, the files to make it can be downloaded from Thingiverse. He claims a 34pF-164pF capacitance range, which, looking at the size of the plates we find to be believable (and which is a useful range for most HF applications). We like this solution, and believe it makes more sense than being scalped for an older example at a radio rally.

This isn’t the first variable capacitor we’ve shown you, though some previous examples have been more conventional.

A Variable Capacitor Made From Junk


[Jezan] decided to introduce his son to electronics by building a small crystal radio. These crystal sets have been around for a long time, and make for a great beginner electronics project, but some of the required parts are a little hard to come by. The most difficult to source part for these radios is a variable capacitor, and not finding one in his parts bin, [Jezan] decided to make his own.

This variable capacitor comes directly from a piece of 1.5 mm thick aluminum sheet. Instead of fancy CNC machines, power tools, or even a pair of tin snips, [Jezan] cut the rotors and stators for his variable capacitors with a pair of scissors. The center hole was punched out with a piece of sharpened pipe, and all the pieces were filed down and sanded for a perfect finish.

Considering the variable caps you can get your hands on are either rare or very old, this looks like a great afternoon project for the budding electronics wizard or radio enthusiast. [Jezan]’s craftsmanship is incredible as well and the finished part looks like it came off an assembly line.

Building Air Variable Capacitors

In keeping with our opinion that radio operators were the original electronic hackers here’s a guide to building your own transmitting air variable capacitors. Using some roof flashing, Plexiglas, and various fasteners [David Hammack] was able to make it work. It’s not a perfect solution but he has some ideas to make the next one better. Give this a try after you’re done tweaking your crystals and building input devices.

[Thanks Rich]

Variable Super Capacitor Battery Provides Power On The Go


Instructable user [EngineeringShock] got sick of buying batteries for his devices all the time and has instead opted to build himself a super capacitor bank that can be used to power common household items.

His “forever” rechargeable capacitor bank is made of two large super capacitors rated at 400 farads apiece. It is charged through a LM317-based charging circuit that is adjustable to allow for slow or fast charging, the latter of which he admits, is slightly dangerous.

Since the super caps are only rated at 2.7 volts, they are wired through a DC-DC booster circuit that allows him to adjust the output voltage from 4.3 v to 34 v. The adjusted voltage is then passed through a digital display that allows him to see what the output voltage is at any time.

He says that the super cap bank can power his computer’s speakers for about two hours before requiring a recharge, which takes just a few short minutes, depending on how he is charging them.

While it’s not exactly cheap, the capacitor bank could be useful for those requiring quick portable power for relatively short periods of time. If we were to build one ourselves, we would likely fit all of the components into a small project box to protect the caps from accidental discharging, and top it off with a couple of solar cells to charge it for free during the day.

Keep reading to see a quick video demonstration of his super cap “battery” in action.

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Taking A Close Look At Parallel Plate Capacitors

Of course, we all know that capacitors are conceptually two conductors separated by a dielectric of some sort. But outside of air-variable capacitors you normally don’t see them looking like that. For example, a film capacitor has its plates rolled up in a coil with an insulating film in between. You can’t really see that unless you take them apart. But [Electronoobs] makes some giant capacitors using large plates and does a few experiments to demonstrate their characteristics. You can see his work in the video below.

The arrangement reminded us of a Leyden jar except there’s no physical motion. He also had some entertaining footage of electrolytic capacitors exploding when connected backwards. The reason, by the way, is that electrolytic capacitors have conductive goo in them. By putting a controlled current through them during manufacturing, a very thin insulating layer forms on one electrode. The thinner the layer, the higher the potential capacitance is. The downside is that putting current in the opposite way of the formation current causes catastrophic results, as you can see.

The value of a capacitor depends on the area, the spacing, and the type of dielectric between the plates. The video covers how each of those alters the capacitor value. Real capacitors also have undesirable characteristics like leakage and parasitic resistance or inductance.

It used to be that capacitance meters were exotic gear, but these days many meters have that capability. This would be a great set of experiments for a classroom or as the basis for a kid’s science project. For example, measuring different dielectric materials to determine which is the best for different purposes.

Granted, capacitors are pretty basic physics, but it is easy to get wrapped up in using them and not think about what’s going on inside. This video is a good introduction or a refresher, if you need one. It is easy enough to make your own variable capacitors or even special capacitors for high voltages.

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Build Your Own HV Capacitors

Finding high voltage capacitors can be tricky. Sure, you can buy these capacitors, but they are often expensive and hard to find exactly what you want. [RachelAnne] needed some low-value variable capacitors that would work at 100 kV. So she made some.

Instead of fabricating the plates directly, these capacitors use laminations from a scrap power transformer. These usually have two types of plates, one of which looks like a letter “E” and the other just like a straight bar. For dielectric, the capacitors use common transparency film.

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Make Your Own Variable Inductor

Inductors are not the most common component these days and variable ones seem even less common. However, with a ferrite rod and some 3D printing, [drjaynes] shows how to make your own variable inductor. You can see him show the device off in the video below.

The coil itself is just some wire, but the trick is moving the ferrite core in and out of the core. The first version used some very thick wire and produced an inductor that varied from 6 to 22 microhenrys. Switching to 22 gauge wire allowed more wire on the form. That pushed the value range to 2 to 12 millihenrys.

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