# Lab 5 AC Concepts and Measurements II: Capacitors and RC Time-Constant

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1 EE110 Laboratory Introduction to Engineering & Laboratory Experience Lab 5 AC Concepts and Measurements II: Capacitors and RC Time-Constant Capacitors Capacitors are devices that can store electric charge similar to a battery (but with major differences). In its simplest form we can think of a capacitor to consist of two metallic plates separated by air or some other insulating material. The capacitance of a capacitor is referred to by C (in units of Farad, F) and indicates the ratio of electric charge Q accumulated on its plates to the voltage V across it (C = Q/V). The unit of electric charge is Coulomb. Therefore: 1 F = 1 Coulomb/1 Volt). Farad is a huge unit and the capacitance of capacitors is usually described in small fractions of a Farad. The capacitance itself is strictly a function of the geometry of the device and the type of insulating material that fills the gap between its plates. For a parallel plate capacitor, with the plate area of A and plate separation of d, C = (ε A)/d, where ε is the permittivity of the material in the gap. The formula is more complicated for cylindrical and other geometries. However, it is clear that the capacitance is large when the area of the plates are large and they are closely spaced. In order to create a large capacitance, we can increase the surface area of the plates by rolling them into cylindrical layers as shown in the diagram above. Note that if the space between plates is filled with air, then C = (ε0 A)/d, where ε0 is the permittivity of free space. The ratio of (ε/ε0) is called the dielectric constant of the material. The range of dielectric constants of some materials is given below. Obviously, filling the gap between the capacitor plates with materials possessing large dielectric constants will yield a larger capacitance. However, another parameter of interest in capacitors is the strength of the electric field (voltage divided by distance, or V/d) that the material can handle before an electric breakdown occurs. For example, air under normal conditions will breakdown and ionize for electric fields above 3000 V/mm. The breakdown voltage (also called the dielectric constant) of some materials are listed below. Clearly, vacuum would be the best insulator in this respect. 1

2 Material Dielectric Constant Air 1 Bakelight 5-22 Formica Epoxy Resin Glass Mica 4-9 Paper Parafin 2-3 Material Dielectric Strength (kv/mm) Air 3 Borosilicate Glass Mica 118 Diamond 2000 Vacuum In order to prevent the charges on one plate to leak to the other plate, it is important that the dielectric material be a fairly good insulator. Therefore manufacturers pay attention to the dielectric strength of materials in addition to their dielectric constant. Moreover, it is preferred for the material to be flexible so it can be rolled into the space between the cylindrical layers. In general we have two types of capacitors: Ceramic and electrolytic. Ceramic capacitors do not have any polarity which means that the either plate can accumulate positive or negative charge. However, the pins of electrolytic capacitors are marked with their designated polarity and one must be careful to place these capacitors in the circuit with the correct polarity. While the ability of capacitors to store charge is similar to batteries, the main difference between a battery and a capacitor is that capacitors can be charged and discharged very quickly, whereas batteries are meant to discharge very slowly. Batteries are typically capable of storing more charge than typical capacitors. However, the development of supercapacitors in recent years has created the possibility of capacitors replacing batteries in many applications including electric vehicles. One of the main drawback of batteries in electric vehicles is length of time necessary for charging them. Contrary to batteries, capacitors can be charged in a very short period of time. Imagine an electric vehicle 2

3 equipped with supercapacitors which can be charged in a matter of seconds! As we said before, Farad is a very large unit for capacitance. The capacitance of capacitors in circuits could vary from pico Farad (pf) to mili Farad (mf). Charging and Discharging Capacitors Capacitors are generally used in series and/or parallel with resistors. When a capacitor (in series with a resistor) is connected to a battery, the capacitor s plates begin to accumulate charge on them (negative on one side and positive on the other). The rate of charging and discharging of capacitors is an exponential function of the resistance of the resistor and the capacitance of the capacitor. The product of R and C is called the time-constant τ = RC. A capacitor is almost fully charged or fully discharged after about a time span of 4RC. Example: Suppose we would like a 10 μf capacitor to be almost fully charged in 0.1 second. Determine the value of the resistance that we need to place in series with this capacitor when connected to a battery. 4RC = 0.1 which yields R = 2.5 kω Consider a resistor R in series with a capacitor C connected to a power supply as shown in the figure below. When the switch is closed (position 1), the capacitor begins to charge. The rate of charge of the capacitor depends on the circuit's RC time constant. Clearly a large resistance in the circuit limits the current, which slows down the charging of the capacitor. At the same time a capacitor with a large capacitance takes longer to fully charge. Consider a capacitor that is fully charged (the switch in position 2). The capacitor will start to discharge when the switch is turned to position 2. The rate of discharge will depend on the value of the RC time constant. The significance of the value of RC can be seen by analyzing the charging or discharging equations for voltage or charge of the capacitor. 3

4 When the capacitor is fully charged, its voltage its voltage reaches the battery voltage V0. As soon as the switch is thrown into position 2 (disconnected from the battery), the fully charged capacitor begins to discharge through the resistor. The capacitor voltage VC drops exponentially with time: VC = V0 e -t/rc This equation indicates that the larger the RC, the longer it takes for the capacitor to discharge. For t = RC, VC = V0/e, or the capacitor voltage drops to 1/e of its maximum value (VC = V0). For t = 2 RC, the voltage drops to V = V0, etc Therefore RC is a measure of the circuit's charging/discharging characteristics. Suppose you connect an unknown capacitor (C) to a known resistor (R) and a function generator (FG) as shown in figure below. The FG pulses will charge and discharge the capacitor repeatedly. Using an oscilloscope one can measure the time that it takes for the capacitors voltage to drop to 0.37 of its fully charged value. Measurement of this time can lead to calculation of the unknown capacitor from t = RC. Therefore an analysis of charging and discharging curves of capacitors will provide us with information about the capacitance of capacitors. 4

5 Measurement 1 Capacitance measurement: Some multimeters are equipped for capacitance measurement. You can also use the large HP instrument in the back of the lab to determine the capacitance of your capacitors. You can also observe the charging and discharging of capacitors on an oscilloscope and estimate the value of capacitance through measurement of the RC time constant. In this part of the experiment we will try both methods. A. Select a capacitor with a capacitance of approximately 50 nf. Use a capacitance meter and measure its value. Pick a 2 kω resistor. Measure its actual resistance with a multimeter. Calculate the RC time-constant and record all values in your lab book. B. Place the capacitor in series with the resistor and connect to a function generator. Select a square wave of 50% duty cycle. Set the frequency of the function generator to 4 khz and its amplitude to 2 Vpp (or 1 Vp). Using the oscilloscope, observe the waveform of the function generator on channel 2 and the voltage across the capacitor on channel 1. The waveform on channel 1 should be similar to the charging and discharging curve shown above. Tweak the oscilloscope (and the frequency of the function generator) so you can observe one full charging and discharging cycle of the capacitor on the screen. XSC1 A B Ext Trig R1 V1 1Vpk 4kHz 0 2kΩ C1 51nF Using the oscilloscope screen divisions or cursors determine the time it takes for the capacitor to be fully discharged. Set that time equal to 4RC and by inserting the measured value of the resistor, calculate the value of C. Compare this capacitance with the value measured by the HP capacitance meter and record your findings in a table. R measured C measured 4RC measured C calculated % error You can use your Discovery Scope to make the measurements at home. Indicate in your lab book which instrument you used. Measurement 2 Series and parallel combination of capacitors: Similar to resistors, two or more capacitors can be connected in series or parallel. The formula for calculation of the equivalent capacitance of the combined capacitors is the reverse of resistors. When you connect capacitors in parallel, you are effectively increasing the plate area of the resulting capacitor. However, when they are connected in series the resulting voltage will be the sum of voltages of each capacitor. A rather 5

6 simple analysis (not given here) will result in the following formulas for the effective capacitance (Ce) of capacitors when connected in series or parallel. Series combination: 1/Ce = 1/C1 1/C2 Parallel combination: Ce = C1 C2 Therefore, if you wish to obtain a smaller capacitance, you can combine two or more capacitors in series and if you would like a larger capacitance, you can connect them in parallel. Choose two capacitors with capacitances of about 100 nf and 200 nf (if unavailable, choose similar values). Carefully measure each capacitance and record in your lab book. A. Combine the two capacitors in series and using the HP capacitance meter measure the equivalent capacitance of the combination. B. Combine them in parallel and measure the equivalent capacitance and record all values in your lab book. C. Calculate the expected equivalent capacitance for each case and in a table compare with the measured values. C1 measured C2 measured Cseries measured Cseries calculated % error Cparallel measured Cparallel calculated % error Measurement 3 Low-Pass and High-Pass Filters: In this part we will experiment two very simple filters consisting of a resistor and a capacitor. The idea is to demonstrate that we can filter out high frequency AC signals in Low-Pass filters and filter out the low frequency AC signals in High- Pass filters. The underlying principle of operation of RC filters is based on the fact that a capacitor exhibits a large electrical resistance at low frequencies, and a low electrical resistance at higher frequencies. Therefore we expect that a capacitor will act as an infinitely large resistor for DC signals and a very small resistance at very high frequencies. In a low-pass filter, the circuit blocks higher frequencies and in a high-pass filter, lower frequencies are blocked. Each filter has a threshold that is determined by the values of the resistance and capacitance of the two elements in the circuit. Therefore the threshold of the filters can be adjusted by changing the values of the resistance and capacitance of the elements in the circuit. For both types of filters we apply a sine wave (input) to a circuit consisting of a series combination of a resistor and a capacitor. In a low-pass filter the output voltage is taken across the capacitor and in a high-pass filter the output voltage is taken across the resistor. In both cases the input and output voltages must share the ground connection. The cut-off frequency for these filters is defined to be 1/2πRC, which corresponds to the frequency at which the output power is ½ of the input power. Low-pass and high-pass filters are use in a variety of electronic circuits. The following experiment will demonstrate the principle of operation of these filters. 6

7 Other circuits (not discussed here) allow a certain band of frequencies to go through. These are called band-pass filters. A. Low-pass filter XSC1 Ext Trig XFG1 A B C1 220nF Connect the circuit above. Apply a sine wave with 4Vpp and 0V offset. You will be using both channels of the oscilloscope. Connect channel 2 to the input (function generator) and Channel 1 to the output (across the capacitor). R1 1kΩ First, visually observe that at low frequencies the output has the same Vpp as the input signal (low pass!). Vpp is the height of the waveform on the scope. Gradually increase the frequency until you see a drop in the output Vpp. Now we need to define the usefulness range of this filter. This cut-off frequency is defined to be a frequency at which the power of the output signal drops to ½ of the power of the input signal. At the end of this exercise we will show that at this point, which is called the -3 db point, the amplitude of the output voltage is of the input voltage. Therefore the objective of this part of the experiment is to identify the cut-off (or -3 db) frequency. The -3 db concept is quite fundamental in electronics but it takes some time for students to fully comprehend the meaning of it. Therefore, while increasing the frequency, you will monitor the height of the waveform and mark the frequency at which the height drops to of its original maximum value. Ask your instructor if you have difficulty understanding this concept. Set the cursors to measure and record the peak-to-peak output voltage when the output starts to drop. Choose an input P-P voltage of 4 V. Keep increasing the frequency until you observe that the P-P voltage Vout = Vin. Make a note of this frequency. R C V C max V C max f cut off 1/2πRC B. High-pass filter This experiment is identical to the previous part except, the output voltage is taken across the resistor and we start at high frequencies (high pass). At high frequencies the amplitude of the input and output signals are the same. Increase the frequency of the function generator until you see the height of the input and output signals are the same. Now reduce the frequency until the - 7

8 3dB point is reached (Vout = Vin). Make a note of this cut-off frequency. The circuit and the set up are shown below. XSC2 Ext Trig XFG2 A B R2 1kΩ C2 220nF R C V R max V R max F cut off 1/2πRC Definitions of Cut-off and -3 db frequencies The cut-off threshold for the high-pass and low-pass filters is defined to be the frequency at which the output voltage drops to of the input voltage. In general, the cut-off frequency is defined to be the frequency at which the output power drops to ½ of the input power. However, since the electrical power dissipated in a component is proportional to V 2, then we conclude that the cut-off frequency corresponds to the location where the voltage drops to (1/2) 1/2 of its maximum, which is Note that this point is also called the -3dB point. In a logarithmic scale the ratio of the output to the input power is measured in a decibel scale (or db scale) which is based on the following definition: db = 10 log (Pout/Pin) At the location where Pout = (1/2) Pin: db = 10 log(1/2), which leads to - 3 db. The negative sign signifies attenuation of the signal. 8

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