An electrolytic capacitor is a type of capacitor that uses an ionic conducting liquid as one of its plates. Typically with a larger capacitance per unit volume than other types, they are valuable in relatively high-current and low-frequency electrical circuits. This is especially the case in power-supply filters, where they store charge needed to moderate output voltage and current fluctuations, in rectifier output. They are also widely used as coupling capacitors in circuits where AC should be conducted but DC should not.
Electrolytic capacitors can have a very high capacitance, allowing filters made with them to have very low corner frequencies.
Aluminum electrolytic capacitors are constructed from two conducting aluminum foils, one of which is coated with an insulating oxide layer, and a paper spacer soaked in electrolyte. The foil insulated by the oxide layer is the anode while the liquid electrolyte and the second foil act as cathode. This stack is then rolled up, fitted with pin connectors and placed in a cylindrical aluminium casing. The two most popular geometries are axial leads coming from the center of each circular face of the cylinder, or two radial leads or lugs on one of the circular faces.
In aluminum electrolytic capacitors, the layer of insulating aluminum oxide on the surface of the aluminum plate acts as the dielectric, and it is the thinness of this layer that allows for a relatively high capacitance in a small volume. The aluminum oxide layer can withstand an electric field strength of the order of 109 volts per meter. The combination of high capacitance and high voltage result in high energy density.
Unlike most capacitors, electrolytic capacitors have a voltage polarity requirement. The correct polarity is indicated on the packaging by a stripe with minus signs and possibly arrowheads, denoting the adjacent terminal that should have lower electrical potential (i.e. negative terminal). Also the negative terminal lead of radial electrolytic capacitors are shorter. This is necessary because a reverse-bias voltage above 1 to 1.5 V will destroy the center layer of dielectric material via electrochemical reduction ( redox reactions). Without the dielectric material the capacitor will short circuit, and if the short circuit current is excessive, then the electrolyte will heat up and either leak or cause the capacitor to explode.
Redox (shorthand for reduction-oxidation reaction) describes all chemical reactions in which atoms have their oxidation number (oxidation state) changed. This can be either a simple redox process such as the oxidation of carbon to yield carbon dioxide or the reduction of carbon by hydrogen to yield methane (CH4), or it can be a complex process such as the oxidation of sugar in the human body through a series of very complex electron transfer processes.
The term redox comes from the two concepts of reduction and oxidation. It can be explained in simple terms:
Oxidation describes the loss of electrons / hydrogen or gain of oxygen / increase in oxidation state by a molecule, atom or ion
Reduction describes the gain of electrons / hydrogen or a loss of oxygen / decrease in oxidation state by a molecule, atom or ion
Though sufficient for many purposes, these descriptions are not precisely correct. Oxidation and reduction properly refer to a change in oxidation number — the actual transfer of electrons may never occur. Thus, oxidation is better defined as an increase in oxidation number, and reduction as a decrease in oxidation number. In practice, the transfer of electrons will always cause a change in oxidation number, but there are many reactions that are classed as "redox" even though no electron transfer occurs (such as those involving covalent bonds).
Non-redox reactions, which do not involve changes in formal charge, are known as metathesis reactions.
Special capacitors designed for AC operation are available, usually referred to as "non-polar" or "NP" types. In these, full-thickness oxide layers are formed on both the aluminium foil strips prior to assembly. On the alternate halves of the AC cycles, one or the other of the foil strips acts as a blocking diode, preventing reverse current from damaging the electrolyte of the other one. Essentially, a 10 microfarad AC capacitor behaves like two 20 microfarad DC capacitors in inverse series.
Modern capacitors have a safety valve, typically either a scored section of the can, or a specially designed end seal to vent the hot gas/liquid, but ruptures can still be dramatic. Electrolytics can withstand a reverse bias for a short period of time, but they will conduct significant current and not act as a very good capacitor. Most will survive with no reverse DC bias or with only AC voltage, but circuits should be designed so that there is not a constant reverse bias for any significant amount of time. A constant forward bias is preferable, and will increase the life of the capacitor.
These are the different schematic symbols for electrolytic capacitors. Some schematic diagrams do not print the "+" adjacent to the symbol. Electrolytic capacitors are marked to show the polarity of the leads.