The physical form and construction of practical capacitors vary widely and many capacitor types are in common use. Most capacitors contain at least two electrical conductors often in the form of metallic plates or surfaces separated by a dielectric medium. A conductor may be a foil, thin film, sintered bead of metal, or an electrolyte. The nonconducting dielectric acts to increase the capacitor's charge capacity. Materials commonly used as dielectrics include glass, ceramic, plastic film, paper, mica, and oxide layers. Capacitors are widely used as parts of electrical circuits in many common electrical devices. Unlike a resistor, an ideal capacitor does not dissipate energy.
When two conductors experience a potential difference, for example, when a capacitor is attached across a battery, an electric field develops across the dielectric, causing a net positive charge to collect on one plate and net negative charge to collect on the other plate. No current actually flows through the dielectric, however, there is a flow of charge through the source circuit. If the condition is maintained sufficiently long, the current through the source circuit ceases. However, if a time-varying voltage is applied across the leads of the capacitor, the source experiences an ongoing current due to the charging and discharging cycles of the capacitor.
Capacitance is defined as the ratio of the electric charge on each conductor to the potential difference between them. The unit of capacitance in the International System of Units (SI) is the farad (F), defined as one coulomb per volt (1 C/V). Capacitance values of typical capacitors for use in general electronics range from about 1 picofarad (pF) (10−12 F) to about 1 millifarad (mF) (10−3 F).
The capacitance of a capacitor is proportional to the surface area of the plates (conductors) and inversely related to the gap between them. In practice, the dielectric between the plates passes a small amount of leakage current. It has an electric field strength limit, known as the breakdown voltage. The conductors and leads introduce an undesired inductance and resistance.
Capacitors are widely used in electronic circuits for blocking direct current while allowing alternating current to pass. In analog filter networks, they smooth the output of power supplies. In resonant circuits they tune radios to particular frequencies. In electric power transmission systems, they stabilize voltage and power flow. The property of energy storage in capacitors was exploited as dynamic memory in early digital computers.