Ceramic capacitors (mostly available today as Multilayer Ceramic Capacitors or MLCCs) and tantalum (Ta) capacitors are two popular capacitor technologies that find application in many electronic devices. Though these capacitor categories perform much of the same functions, they differ in working principle, performance when subjected to different conditions, and construction materials.
The shortage in supply of top-quality MLCCs that started in 2018 necessitated the use of Ta capacitors as an equally viable, albeit more expensive, alternative. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions, the surge in demand for Ta capacitors ballooned worldwide. Therefore, to better understand the implications of choosing one type of capacitor over the other, it is imperative to compare and contrast MLCCs and Ta capacitors in all aspects.
Ceramic capacitors are non-polarity devices that utilize ceramic substances as their dielectric substance. These high-frequency capacitors are well-known for their small size and lightweight construction. They are available as multilayer and single-layer disc ceramic capacitors throughout the electronics industry. The dielectric nature of ceramic capacitors is attributable to specific materials molded into definite geometries, such as titanium oxide, barium titanate, and strontium titanate.
Ceramic disc capacitors consist of metallic plates, such as silver, attached to either side of the disc, with two lead wires emerging from both the plates. The whole structure is coated with resin to act as a shield from moisture and contaminants. Their voltage rating ranges from 16 V to 15 kV, and their capacitance ranges from 10 picofarads to 100 microfarads. Meanwhile, most disc capacitors' optimum industrial temperature range is -25 degrees Celsius to +85 degrees Celsius.
Multilayer ceramic capacitors consist of finely-powdered ferroelectric or dielectric substances to achieve a desired capacitance, often more than single disc capacitors. There is a direct correlation between the voltage generated by a capacitor and its thickness, where the voltage increases with increased thickness. MLCCs usually feature a minimum of 500 layers, each of which is 0.5 millimeters in thickness. These capacitor types find applicability in several electronic devices for personal use, such as laptops and smartphones.
Tantalum capacitors are electrolytic capacitors that use tantalum metal as their anode, that of which is covered with a layer of oxide and further surrounded by a cathode layer. Tantalum capacitors are known for delivering high capacitances due to the extremely thin layer of dielectric material that they use–like titanium pentoxide–along with a large plate area.
The positively charged dielectric plate of tantalum is made of pure titanium powder that has been sintered and pressed into a pellet. Since tantalum pellets are highly porous, the surface area of an individual particle can be equivalent to that of a single capacitor plate.
Tantalum capacitors have capacitance value ranges of 1 nanofarad to 72 microfarads, with voltage ranging from 2V to 500V. The nature of dielectric materials used and the highly specialized design of these capacitors make them operable over a wide range of temperature fluctuations.
Ceramic capacitors boost lightweight designs, cost-effectiveness, and general reliability, and they are regularly preferred by engineers in harmonics suppression and filtering applications. Due to their inherent stability, tantalum capacitors are better suited to volatile applications like DC blocking, filtering, decoupling, bypassing, etc.
When subjected to fluctuating temperatures, the capacitance changes registered in tantalum capacitors are linear, whereas in ceramic capacitors, they are non-linear.
Since ceramic capacitors are non-polarized, they boast a better frequency by connecting to an AC source. On the other hand, tantalum capacitors are polarized, and they obtain their terminal polarity by being connected to a DC source.
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