Variable capacitors

February 11, 2009 Views
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Variable capacitors are mostly used in radio tuning circuits and they are sometimes called 'tuning capacitors'. They have very small capacitance values, typically between 100pF and 500pF (100pF = 0.0001µF). The type illustrated usually has trimmers built in (for making small adjustments - see below) as well as the main variable capacitor.

Many variable capacitors have very short spindles which are not suitable for the standard knobs used for variable resistors and rotary switches. It would be wise to check that a suitable knob is available before ordering a variable capacitor.

Variable capacitors are not normally used in timing circuits because their capacitance is too small to be practical and the range of values available is very limited. Instead timing circuits use a fixed capacitor and a variable resistor if it is necessary to vary the time period.

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Electrolytic Capacitors

February 10, 2009 Views
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Electrolytic capacitors are polarised and they must be connected the correct way round, at least one of their leads will be marked + or -. They are not damaged by heat when soldering.

There are two designs of electrolytic capacitors; axial where the leads are attached to each end (220µF in picture) and radial where both leads are at the same end (10µF in picture). Radial capacitors tend to be a little smaller and they stand upright on the circuit board.

It is easy to find the value of electrolytic capacitors because they are clearly printed with their capacitance and voltage rating. The voltage rating can be quite low (6V for example) and it should always be checked when selecting an electrolytic capacitor. If the project parts list does not specify a voltage, choose a capacitor with a rating which is greater than the project's power supply voltage. 25V is a sensible minimum for most battery circuits.

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Trimmer capacitors

February 9, 2009 Views
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Trimmer capacitors (trimmers) are miniature variable capacitors. They are designed to be mounted directly onto the circuit board and adjusted only when the circuit is built.

A small screwdriver or similar tool is required to adjust trimmers. The process of adjusting them requires patience because the presence of your hand and the tool will slightly change the capacitance of the circuit in the region of the trimmer!

Trimmer capacitors are only available with very small capacitances, normally less than 100pF. It is impossible to reduce their capacitance to zero, so they are usually specified by their minimum and maximum values, for example 2-10pF.

Trimmers are the capacitor equivalent of presets which are miniature variable resistors.

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Tiny capacitors may overcome physical limits of hard drives

February 7, 2009 Views
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Storage—there is never enough of it. I still remember when I thought my 700MB hard drive was huge... until I tried to copy an entire CD onto it for faster access. After that, I spent a period stuck choosing music to stick on my three GB hard drive. Two weeks ago, I ditched six months' worth of simulation data because my 320GB hard drive was full. One TB of new drive later, and I'm wondering how soon it will be before I start feeling the squeeze again. Maybe never, if some of the latest research coming out of Korea and Germany bears fruit.

One of the cool things about hard drive technology is how it has actually kept pace with computer needs. The basic mechanism for hard drive storage, however, does have some fundamental limitations, which manufacturers will have to deal with fairly soon. Bits are currently stored in the orientation of tiny magnets, called ferromagnetic domains, on a hard drive platter. The smaller the domain, the easier it is for that orientation to be scrambled by temperature or stray electromagnetic fields. At a certain size, thermal photons (e.g., heat energy from the surrounding case or the underlying disk) have enough energy to flip a domain's orientation. Manufacturers will have to keep their domain sizes significantly bigger than that threshold size to ensure data integrity, which puts a ceiling on storage density, one we're rapidly approaching.

An alternative is to use ferroelectric domains. Unlike ferromagnetic domains, ferroelectric domains have a natural electric field with an orientation that can be used to represent data. Until recently, these haven't looked that attractive because they have pretty much the same limitations that ferromagnetic domains have, but they lack the cool read-out tricks. Ferroelectric materials, however, do have one big advantage over ferromagnetic materials: they can be used to make really good capacitors. This is exactly what the latest research, published in Nature Nanotechnology, is about.

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KEMET Introduces The First 35-Volt Rated Polymer Tantalum Capacitor

February 1, 2009 Views
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Greenville, SC - KEMET Corporation announced the release of the first ever 35V rated surface mount polymer tantalum chip capacitor.

Since their introduction in the '90s, polymer tantalum capacitors have become a popular choice for capacitance solutions in portable consumer electronics due to their low ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance), high reliability, volumetric efficiency, low profile design and benign failure mode. To date, these devices have been most commonly used in applications at or below 14V and are limited to voltage applications that cannot exceed 20V of continuous duty. These voltage restrictions are driven by limitations in the materials of construction and manufacturing processes that have until today prevented the industry from achieving higher voltage ratings.

"This first-to-market technology represents a significant breakthrough for design engineers," stated Dr. Philip Lessner, KEMET's CTO and Chief Scientist. "Military, aerospace, power supplies and industrial applications will all benefit from this advancement. Our first significant order has been placed by a U.S. military contractor to enhance the performance of a key communications network system that is used by multiple defense agencies around the world," continued Lessner.

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Single-turn Trimming Potentiometers

January 31, 2009 Views
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Trimming potentiometers perform a variety of circuit adjustments in all types of electronic equipment. The variety of physical configurations available and the ability to withstand today's manufacturing environment offers the designer flexibility in selecting the best trimmer for the application. Around the world, trimmers are used in virtually every electronic market.

  • Multi-turn Trimming Potentiometers
  • Single-turn Trimming Potentiometers
  • Military Qualified Trimming Potentiometers

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Multi-turn Trimming Potentiometers

January 31, 2009 Views
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Trimming potentiometers perform a variety of circuit adjustments in all types of electronic equipment. The variety of physical configurations available and the ability to withstand today's manufacturing environment offers the designer flexibility in selecting the best trimmer for the application. Around the world, trimmers are used in virtually every electronic market.

Typical applications include measuring linear distance, angles or rotations in production equipment, industrial test and measurement equipment, and medical equipment.

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A bad-capacitor story ends happily

January 31, 2009 Views
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I worked as a design engineer for an optical-telecom company that had deployed 1000 pieces of equipment worldwide. Having so many modules in the field means a trickle of returns, and it was my job to investigate the failures. One investigation taught me a wonderful lesson.

I received a module whose source of failure was easily identifiable: a charred tantalum capacitor. It failed short, making the whole multithousand-dollar module nonoperational. This surface-mount capacitor—with a 7343 footprint and 20V rating—was sitting on a 12V-dc plane. This failure rate of one capacitor in about 10,000 pieces in this time span was well below the statistical prediction. I took a picture of the fallen capacitor and considered the case closed.

In a few weeks, a customer returned a similar module with a charred and shorted capacitor in the same location. Even including this case, the failure rate was still below statistical prediction. I knew there were five more identical capacitors on the board, sitting in parallel on the same 12V-dc plane. In addition to the module's failure rate, I now had a one-in-six chance with the capacitors. So, I took another picture. I wrote a report to calm upper management, but I had a feeling that I'd better study reliability calculation in general and reliability for tantalum capacitors in particular, and the faster, the better.

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What is a Varistor?

January 30, 2009 Views
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A varistor is a type of resistor with a significantly non-ohmic current-voltage characteristic. The name is a portmanteau of variable resistor*, which is misleading since it is not continuously user-variable like a potentiometer or rheostat, and is not a resistor but in fact a capacitor. Varistors are often used to protect circuits against excessive voltage by acting as a spark gap.

The most common type of varistor is the metal oxide varistor, or MOV. This contains a mass of zinc oxide grains, in a matrix of other metal oxides, sandwiched between two metal plates (the electrodes). The boundary between each grain and its neighbour forms a diode junction, which allows current to flow in only one direction. The mass of randomly oriented grains is electrically equivalent to a network of back-to-back diode pairs, each pair in parallel with many other pairs. When a small or moderate voltage is applied across the electrodes, only a tiny current flows, causes by reverse leakage through the diode junctions. When a large voltage is applied, the diode junctions break down because of the avalanche effect, and a large current flows. The result of this behaviour is a highly nonlinear current-voltage characteristic, in which the MOV has a high resistance at low voltages and a low resistance at high voltages.

If the size of the transient pulse (often measured in joules) is too high, the device may melt, or otherwise be damaged. For example, a nearby lightning strike may permanently damage a varistor.

Important parameters for varistors are response time (how long it takes the varistor to break down), maximum current and a well-defined breakdown voltage. When used in communications lines (such as phone lines used for modems), high capacitance is undesirable since it absorbs high frequency signals, thereby reducing the available bandwidth of the line being protected.

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Electrolytic Capacitor

January 13, 2009 Views
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Aluminum is used for the electrodes by using a thin oxidization membrane.

Electrolytic Capacitor

Large values of capacitance can be obtained in comparison with the size of the capacitor, because the dielectric used is very thin.

The most important characteristic of electrolytic capacitors is that they have polarity. They have a positive and a negative electrode.

[Polarised] This means that it is very important which way round they are connected. If the capacitor is subjected to voltage exceeding its working voltage, or if it is connected with incorrect polarity, it may burst. It is extremely dangerous, because it can quite literally explode. Make absolutely no mistakes.

Generally, in the circuit diagram, the positive side is indicated by a "+" (plus) symbol.

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