jb Aluminum Electrolytic Capacitor Polarity

In aluminum electrolytic capacitors, the layer of insulating aluminum oxide on the surface of the aluminum plate acts as the dielectric, and it is the thinness of this layer that allows for a relatively high capacitance in a small volume. This oxide has a dielectric constant of 10, which is several times higher than most common polymer insulators. It can withstand an electric field strength of the order of 25 megavolts per meter which is an acceptable fraction of that of common polymers. This combination of high capacitance and reasonably high voltage result in high energy density.

Most electrolytic capacitors are polarized and require one of the electrodes to be positive relative to the other; they may catastrophically fail if voltage is reversed. This is because a reverse-bias voltage above 1 to 1.5 V will destroy the center layer of dielectric material via electrochemical reduction. Following the loss of the dielectric material, the capacitor will short circuit, and with sufficient short circuit current, the electrolyte will rapidly heat up and either leak or cause the capacitor to burst, often in spectacularly dramatic fashion.

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