Unrolling The Mystery Inside An Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitor

When we remove the enclosure of modern electronics, we see a lot of little silvery cylinders wrapped with heat shrink plastic. These aluminum electrolytic capacitors are common residents on circuit boards. We may have cut one open to satisfy our curiosity of what’s inside, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we understood everything we saw. For a more detailed guided tour, follow [TubeTime]’s informative illustrated Twitter thread.

Electronics beginners are taught the basic canonical capacitor: two metal plates and an insulator separating them. This is enough to understand the theory of capacitor operation, but there were hints the real world is not quite that simple. We don’t even need to disassemble an electrolytic capacitor to get our first hint: these cylinders have markings to indicate polarity, differentiating them from the basic capacitor which is symmetric and indifferent to polarity. Once taken apart and unrolled, we would find two thin aluminum foils separated by a sheet of paper. It would be tempting to decide the foil were our two plates and the paper is our insulator, except for the fact those two metal plates are different sizes further deviating from the basic capacitor.

Electronics veterans know the conductor–insulator–conductor pattern is not foil–paper–foil, but actually foil–oxide–electrolyte. But there is more to [TubeTime]’s tour than this answer, which includes pictures of industrial machinery, a side adventure in electrolytic chemistry using a tiny glass beaker, concluding with links to more information. And once armed with knowledge, we can better understand why electrolytic capacitors don’t necessarily need to be replaced in old equipment and appreciate them within the larger history of capacitors context.

Top Off A Dry Electrolytic

Making a capacitor is pretty easy. Just get two conductors close together. The bigger area you can get and the closer you can get them, the bigger the capacitor you can make. [BigClive] found some fake capacitors that were supposed to be very high value, but weren’t. Taking them apart revealed the capacitors didn’t have the electrolyte inside that gives these units both their name and their high values. What did he do? Mixed up some electrolyte and filled them back up to see what would happen. You can see the video below.

Electrolytic capacitors have a secret weapon to get the two electrodes as close as possible to each other. The electrolyte forms a very thin insulating layer on one electrode and the capacitance is between the conductive fluid and that electrode — not between the two electrodes. This allows for a very narrow gap between the conductors and explains why a small electrolytic can have a much greater capacitance than most other technologies in similar form factors.

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