In the RC Network tutorial we
saw that when a DC voltage is applied to a capacitor, the capacitor itself draws a charging current from the supply and
charges up to a value equal to the applied voltage. Likewise, when the supply voltage is reduced the charge stored in the
capacitor also reduces and the capacitor discharges.
In an AC circuit in which the applied voltage signal is continually changing from a positive to a
negative polarity at a rate determined by the frequency of the supply, as in the case of a sine wave voltage, for example.
The capacitor is either being charged or discharged on a continuous basis at a rate determined by the frequency. As the
capacitor charges or discharges, a current flows through it which is restricted by the internal resistance of the capacitor.
This internal resistance is commonly known as Capacitive Reactance and is given the symbol
XC in Ohms.
Unlike resistance which has a fixed value, ie 100Ωs, 1kΩ,
10kΩ etc (this is because resistance obeys Ohms Law), Capacitive Reactance
varies with frequency so any variation in frequency will have an effect on the capacitors, "capacitive reactance" value. As
the frequency applied to the capacitor increases, its efrect is to decrease its reactance (measured in ohms). Likewise as
the frequency across the capacitor decreases its reactance value increases. This variation is called the capacitors
Complex impedance exists because the electrons in the form of an electrical charge on the capacitor plates,
pass from one plate to the other more rapidly with respect to the varying frequency. As the frequency increases, the capacitor
passes more charge across the plates in a given time resulting in a greater current flow through the capacitor appearing as
if the internal resistance of the capacitor has decreased. Therefore, a capacitor connected to a circuit that changes over a
given range of frequencies can be said to be "Frequency Dependant".
Capacitive Reactance has the electrical symbol "Xc" and has
units measured in Ohms the same as resistance, ( R ). It is calculated using the following formula:
Capacitive Reactance Formula
- Xc = Capacitive Reactance in Ohms, (Ω)
- π (pi) = 3.142 or 22/7
- ƒ = Frequency in Hertz, (Hz)
- C = Capacitance in Farads, (F)
Calculate the capacitive reactance of a 220nF capacitor at a frequency of 1kHz and again at 20kHz.
At a frequency of 1kHz,
Again at a frequency of 20kHz,
where: ƒ = frequency in Hertz and C =
capacitance in Farads
It can be seen that as the frequency applied to our 220nF capacitor increases from 1kHz to 20kHz, its
reactance decreases from approx 723Ωs to just 36Ωs. For any given value of capacitance the reactance of a
capacitor can be plotted against the frequency as shown below.
Capacitive Reactance against Frequency
By re-arranging the reactance formula above, we can also find at what frequency a capacitor will
have a particular capacitive reactance ( XC ) value.
Example No1 - At which frequency would a 2.2uF Capacitor have a reactance value of 200Ωs?
Or we can find the value of the capacitor in Farads by knowing the applied frequency and its reactance value at that frequency.
Example No2 - What will be the value of a Capacitor in farads when it has a
capacitive reactance of 200Ω and is connected to a 50Hz supply.
We can see from the above examples that a capacitor when connected to a variable frequency supply, acts
a bit like a "frequency controlled variable resistor". At very low frequencies, such as 1Hz our 220nF capacitor has a
high capacitive reactance value of approx 723KΩs (giving the effect of an open circuit). At
very high frequencies such as 1Mhz the capacitor has a low capacitive reactance value of just 0.7
ohms (giving the effect of a short circuit). At zero frequency or steady state DC the capacitor has infinite reactance
looking more like an "open-circuit" between the plates and blocking any flow of current through it.
Voltage Divider Revision
We remember from our tutorial about
Resistors in Series that different voltages
can appear across each resistor depending upon the value of the resistance and that a voltage divider circuit has the ability
to divide its supply voltage by the ratio of R2/(R1+R2). Therefore, when R1 = R2
the output voltage will be half the value of the input voltage. Likewise, any value of R2 greater
or less than R1 will result in a proportional change to the output voltage. Consider the circuit
We now know that a capacitors reactance, Xc (its complex impedance) value changes
with respect to frequency. If we were to change resistor R2 above for a capacitor, the voltage drop across
the two components would change as the frequency changed because of the reactance of the capacitor.
The impedance of resistor R1 does not change with frequency, as its a resistor
and are therefore unaffected by frequency change. Then the voltage across resistor R1 and therefore
the output voltage is determined by the capacitive reactance of the capacitor at a given frequency resulting in a
frequency-dependent RC voltage divider circuit. With this idea in mind, passive Low Pass Filters and
High Pass Filters can be constructed by replacing one of the voltage divider resistors with a suitable
capacitor as shown.
Low Pass Filter
High Pass Filter
The property of Capacitive Reactance, makes capacitors ideal for use
in AC filter circuits or in DC power supply smoothing circuits to reduce the effects of any unwanted
Ripple Voltage as the capacitor
applies an short circuit signal path to any unwanted frequency signals on the output terminals.
Capacitive Reactance Summary
So, we can summarize the behaviour of a capacitor in a variable frequency circuit as being a sort of
frequency controlled resistor that has a high capacitive reactance value (open circuit condition) at very low frequencies
and low capacitive reactance value (short circuit condition) at very high frequencies as shown in the graph above.
It is important to remember these two conditions and in our next tutorial about the
Passive Low Pass Filter, we will look at the use of Capacitive reactance
to block any unwanted high frequency signals while allowing only low frequency signals to pass.