Electrolytic capacitors and design rules

This article is intended to explain the bases about electrolytic capacitor, where they are used, basic construction, RLC circuit and much more. This is a first article about capacitors and this article is based on zilsel-invent previous article about low pass filters at the following link: Low pass filter and voltage stabilization

Electrolytic capacitors and design rules

The figure #2 presents already used electrolytic capacitors. As we can see electrolytic capacitor is polarized device which means that it is important to pay attention during capacitor assembling to the PCB (printed circuit board). Depending on the capacitor manufactures, in some cases negative lead is marked with a negative sign, and in some cases positive lead (capacitor pin) is marked with a plus sign. Beside polarization mark, there are also labels about capacitance (for example 470 microfarads) and maximum allowed voltage (for example 10V). The maximum allowed voltage is important parameter regarding electronic device design and it should be chosen carefully. For example, figure #1 presents power linear voltage regulator or power supply. The power supply provides 15 VDC at the output. To provide voltage stability we will place an electrolytic capacitor between 15VDC and ground, in following fashion: positive lead of the electrolytic capacitor is connected to 15VDC while negative lead (capacitor pin) is connected to the ground. Let say that electrolytic capacitor capacitance is 100 microfarads, but what about working voltage? That is a good question since we have to choose it and there is a simple rule how to do that. If a linear voltage regulator provides 15VDC at the output, that means that electrolytic capacitor must be rated for 15 VDC minimum, but practically, always higher value is selected in order to avoid electrolytic capacitor explosion. So, instead to choose 15VDC exactly, we will choose 20VDC or more. At this point you have to check, by looking at electrolytic capacitor datasheets, does electrolytic capacitor exist for combination 100uF/20VDC. If does exist, that is great, otherwise select first higher voltage value regarding capacitance of 100uF. If we choose electrolytic capacitor declared on 10VDC maximum (instead of 15VDC minimum), and place it between the output leads of the voltage regulator declared on the 15VDC output, electrolytic capacitor will be permanently damaged by explosion.  

Figure #1. Low pass filter and voltage signal stabilization (click on the image to zoom in).

This was only an example regarding voltage regulator, but let say that we are dealing with five different voltage potentials regarding electronic device: 5VDC, 10VDC, 18VDC, 35VDC and GROUND (do not forget that ground is also a voltage potential with zero value). Now, because we do know that the device has five different potentials where the highest value is 35VDC, what does that mean regarding electrolytic capacitor? That means that the minimum voltage rating regarding electrolytic capacitor must be 35 volts DC. But, since voltage oscillations does exists in reality we will pick higher value for electrolytic capacitor, let say 40 volts DC. As for the first example, we will check by looking into the electrolytic capacitors datasheets does combination capacitance/voltage exist for the related electrolytic capacitor. If chosen voltage does not exist we will pick first higher voltage value. Why we do this? Lat say that electrolytic capacitor is connected to 18VDC, if 35VDC by some kind of failure appears on the electrolytic capacitor, it will be damaged permanently by explosion since 35 VDC is overvoltage regarding capacitor declared on 18VDC. That is the reason why we pick capacitor voltage rating by highest voltage potential related to the electronic device (or some part of the electronic device), and by doing so, we are sure that capacitor explosion will be avoided.

Figure #2. Already used electrolytic capacitors (radial package) without etched protection against explosion (click to zoom).

The explosion of the electrolytic capacitor could be very dangerous and it is worse if the capacitor is designed without etched protection against explosion on the top side, as it is presented in the figure #2. The electrolytic capacitor is filled with electrolyte, if overvoltage is placed between capacitor leads, the electrolyte becomes gas and pressure is so high that electrolytic capacitor construction at some point is not able to handle generated (by heat) gas pressure, and that is the reason why electrolytic capacitor explodes. Overvoltage is just one way to blow an electrolytic capacitor, the same is happening when electrolytic capacitor leads are switched, when positive lead is connected to smaller voltage potential relative to the negative capacitor lead. So, it is very important to pay attention on polarity during electrolytic capacitor assembling. In general, always pay attention about maximum voltage rating and capacitor lead polarity.

Capacitor is electronic device like any other device and it is not ideal component. It has internal resistance ESR (equivalent series resistance), capacitance and inductance (capacitor leads - pins are inductors - parasitic) and in general it is a RLC circuit. Because it has internal resistance that means that power dissipation does exist inside capacitor while it is in working state. If capacitor works under normal working conditions dissipated heat will be much smaller in comparison with dissipated heat regarding overvoltage, but anyway, generated heat decrease the electrolyte properties and in time capacitor life cycle will be ended. As for the capacitance and maximum voltage ratings, under electrolytic capacitor datasheets you will find information about capacitor life cycle, and how long it will work under normal working conditions.

Figure #3. Electrolytic capacitors (radial package) with etched protection against explosion (click to zoom).

The figure #3 presents brand new electrolytic capacitors not already used (excluding testing after fabrication). As we can see, the polarity, beside the polarization mark, can be also determined by capacitor lead length. Lead with greater length is positive capacitor lead (or anode) while smaller lead is negative capacitor polarity. Also, information about capacitance as well as the maximum voltage rating are also printed. The big difference between electrolytic capacitors presented in figure #2 and figure #3 is capacitor package construction. All capacitors are packed into the radial package (there is also axial package), but with one big difference. Capacitors at figure #2 are uncontrolled regarding explosion with very high explosion intensity, but capacitors at figure #3 are controlled, which means that the explosion is directed to the top of the capacitor, since the etched surface of capacitors can handle much less pressure compared to the rest of the capacitor package construction. By placing etches on the top of capacitor we can be sure (but not 100%) that explosion will be controlled with much less explosion intensity in comparison with capacitors presented on figure #2. This is also important, and pay attention to buy electrolytic capacitors with etched top surface. The difference between etched surface and the smooth surface is presented on figure #4.

Figure #4. Difference between electrolytic capacitors with etched top surface (left) and without etched surface (right), Etched surface is used as protection against explosion. Left is better choice, so pay attention when you buy capacitors, always choose capacitors with etched surface (click to zoom).

Axial electrolytic capacitor package. Plus sign is related to the positive lead of the capacitor. This capacitor is intended for horizontal assembling but it can be also assembled in vertical position as radial capacitor (click to zoom).

SERPENT I DC motor controller/driver is assembled with radial electrolytic capacitors with etched top surface as protection against capacitor explosion. All zilsel-invent DC motor drivers are assembled with etched electrolytic capacitors (click to zoom).

Electrolytic capacitor PCB symbol and assembling

Depending on the silkscreen design, electrolytic capacitor PCB (printed circuit board) symbol could be different, but polarity label is always printed if soldering place is intended for electrolytic capacitors. Before we continue with electrolytic capacitor symbols, a couple of words regarding PCB. PCB has two major colors: soldering mask color and silkscreen color. In figure #5 white color is dedicated to soldering mask while black color is dedicated to silkscreen, that is the reason why PCB is labeled as White-Black edition (rule: soldering mask-silkscreen edition). Silkscreen is printed on the board and it is consisted of electronic device symbols and values. Silkscreen is a guideline for assembling process. Without silkscreen assembling will be difficult because it is not clear which soldering point belong to which electronic device. That is one of the reasons why silkscreen does exit and why it should be designed carefully. Beside electronic component symbols, silkscreen contains labels about the product and vendor: >SERPENT II - Pit VIPER Rattle< is product codename, >designed by zilsel-invent< is vendor label.

Figure #5. SERPENT II - Pit VIPER Rattle - White Black Edition. Electrolytic capacitor PCB symbol (click to zoom).

Now let’s go back to the electrolytic capacitor. Symbol for electrolytic capacitor is rounded with yellow rectangle (figure #5) and it is consisted of the polarity mark, in this case + sign is printed (positive lead of the electrolytic capacitor) and capacitance value, in this case 100uF (microfarads). During the assembling process (soldering of the electrolytic capacitor on the PCB) it is important to place the positive lead of the electrolytic capacitor pin “through the hole” (through-hole technology) labeled with positive mark sign as it is presented in the figure #6. You should always be careful here, if you change capacitor leads, the capacitor will be damaged permanently by the explosion. And for the last, pay attention on the label “C3” placed on the PCB at figure #5, on the left side of the “C3” label you can see the symbol for multilayered capacitor of 100nF in capacitance, used as an additional low pass filter. 

Figure #6. SERPENT II - Pit VIPER Rattle - White Black Edition. Electrolytic capacitor PCB assembling (click to zoom).

This video is an example about how to do soldering of the electrolytic capacitors. Assembling/soldering is related to the SERPENT II - Pit VIPER DC motor controller designed by zilsel-invent (R) (C) Novi Sad Serbia
Related articles:  
SERPENT I - DC motor controller
SERPENT I - PCB DIY (do it yourself) assembling - video clips examples
zilsel-invent assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or inaccuracies that may appear in the present document.
Specification and information contained in the present schematics are subject to change at any time without notice.


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  2. you are clear my mind actually after reading your article i got clear my complete doubt. thanks for such easy understanding post.

    James clark @ electrotopic.com

  3. DC link capacitors Very efficiently written information. It will be beneficial to anybody who utilizes it, including me. Keep up the good work. For sure i will check out more posts. This site seems to get a good amount of visitors.


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