Variable capacitor

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Rotary variable capacitor Variable Capacitor.jpg
Rotary variable capacitor
Rotary variable capacitor: several rotor positions. Condensateur-variable-a-air 375x240.gif
Rotary variable capacitor: several rotor positions.

A variable capacitor is a capacitor whose capacitance may be intentionally and repeatedly changed mechanically or electronically. Variable capacitors are often used in L/C circuits to set the resonance frequency, e.g. to tune a radio (therefore it is sometimes called a tuning capacitor or tuning condenser), or as a variable reactance, e.g. for impedance matching in antenna tuners.

Capacitor Passive two-terminal electronic component that stores electrical energy in an electric field

A capacitor is a device that stores electrical energy in an electric field. It is a passive electronic component with two terminals.

LC circuit

An LC circuit, also called a resonant circuit, tank circuit, or tuned circuit, is an electric circuit consisting of an inductor, represented by the letter L, and a capacitor, represented by the letter C, connected together. The circuit can act as an electrical resonator, an electrical analogue of a tuning fork, storing energy oscillating at the circuit's resonant frequency.

Impedance matching practice in electronics

In electronics, impedance matching is the practice of designing the input impedance of an electrical load or the output impedance of its corresponding signal source to maximize the power transfer or minimize signal reflection from the load.


Mechanically controlled capacitance

Principle of the rotary variable capacitor Forgokondenzator rajz en.svg
Principle of the rotary variable capacitor

In mechanically controlled variable capacitors, the distance between the plates, or the amount of plate surface area which overlaps, can be changed.

The most common form arranges a group of semicircular metal plates on a rotary axis ("rotor") that are positioned in the gaps between a set of stationary plates ("stator") so that the area of overlap can be changed by rotating the axis. Air or plastic foils can be used as dielectric material. By choosing the shape of the rotary plates, various functions of capacitance vs. angle can be created, e.g. to obtain a linear frequency scale. Various forms of reduction gear mechanisms are often used to achieve finer tuning control, i.e. to spread the variation of capacity over a larger angle, often several turns.

Dielectric electrically poorly conducting or non-conducting, non-metallic substance of which charge carriers are generally not free to move

A dielectric is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material as they do in an electrical conductor but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric polarization. Because of dielectric polarization, positive charges are displaced in the direction of the field and negative charges shift in the opposite direction. This creates an internal electric field that reduces the overall field within the dielectric itself. If a dielectric is composed of weakly bonded molecules, those molecules not only become polarized, but also reorient so that their symmetry axes align to the field.

Gear rotating machine

A gear or cogwheel is a rotating machine part having cut teeth, or in the case of a cogwheel, inserted teeth, which mesh with another toothed part to transmit torque. Geared devices can change the speed, torque, and direction of a power source. Gears almost always produce a change in torque, creating a mechanical advantage, through their gear ratio, and thus may be considered a simple machine. The teeth on the two meshing gears all have the same shape. Two or more meshing gears, working in a sequence, are called a gear train or a transmission. A gear can mesh with a linear toothed part, called a rack, producing translation instead of rotation.

A vacuum variable capacitor uses a set of plates made from concentric cylinders that can be slid in or out of an opposing set of cylinders (sleeve and plunger). These plates are then sealed inside of a non-conductive envelope such as glass or ceramic and placed under a high vacuum. The movable part (plunger) is mounted on a flexible metal membrane that seals and maintains the vacuum. A screw shaft is attached to the plunger, when the shaft is turned the plunger moves in or out of the sleeve and the value of the capacitor changes. The vacuum not only increases the working voltage and current handling capacity of the capacitor, it also greatly reduces the chance of arcing across the plates. The most common usage for vacuum variables are in high-powered transmitters such as those used for broadcasting, military and amateur radio, as well as high-powered RF tuning networks. Vacuum variables can also be more convenient; since the elements are under a vacuum, the working voltage can be higher than an air variable the same size, allowing the size of the vacuum capacitor to be reduced.

Vacuum Space that is empty of matter

Vacuum is space devoid of matter. The word stems from the Latin adjective vacuus for "vacant" or "void". An approximation to such vacuum is a region with a gaseous pressure much less than atmospheric pressure. Physicists often discuss ideal test results that would occur in a perfect vacuum, which they sometimes simply call "vacuum" or free space, and use the term partial vacuum to refer to an actual imperfect vacuum as one might have in a laboratory or in space. In engineering and applied physics on the other hand, vacuum refers to any space in which the pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure. The Latin term in vacuo is used to describe an object that is surrounded by a vacuum.

Voltage difference in the electric potential between two points in space

Voltage, electric potential difference, electric pressure or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points. The difference in electric potential between two points in a static electric field is defined as the work needed per unit of charge to move a test charge between the two points. In the International System of Units, the derived unit for voltage is named volt. In SI units, work per unit charge is expressed as joules per coulomb, where 1 volt = 1 joule per 1 coulomb. The official SI definition for volt uses power and current, where 1 volt = 1 watt per 1 ampere. This definition is equivalent to the more commonly used 'joules per coulomb'. Voltage or electric potential difference is denoted symbolically by V, but more often simply as V, for instance in the context of Ohm's or Kirchhoff's circuit laws.

Electric current flow of electric charge

An electric current is the rate of flow of electric charge past a point or region. An electric current is said to exist when there is a net flow of electric charge through a region. In electric circuits this charge is often carried by electrons moving through a wire. It can also be carried by ions in an electrolyte, or by both ions and electrons such as in an ionized gas (plasma).

Very cheap variable capacitors are constructed from layered aluminium and plastic foils that are variably pressed together using a screw. These so-called squeezers cannot provide a stable and reproducible capacitance, however. A variant of this structure that allows for linear movement of one set of plates to change the plate overlap area is also used and might be called a slider. This has practical advantages for makeshift or home construction, and may be found in resonant-loop antennas or crystal radios.

Small variable capacitors operated by screwdriver (for instance, to precisely set a resonant frequency at the factory and then never be adjusted again) are called trimmer capacitors. In addition to air and plastic, trimmers can also be made using a ceramic dielectric, such as mica.

Trimmer (electronics) miniature adjustable electrical component

A trimmer is a miniature adjustable electrical component. It is meant to be set correctly when installed in some device, and never seen or adjusted by the device's user. Trimmers can be variable resistors (potentiometers), variable capacitors, or trimmable inductors. They are common in precision circuitry like A/V components, and may need to be adjusted when the equipment is serviced. Trimpots are often used to initially calibrate equipment after manufacturing. Unlike many other variable controls, trimmers are mounted directly on circuit boards, turned with a small screwdriver and rated for many fewer adjustments over their lifetime. Trimmers like trimmable inductors and trimmable capacitors are usually found in superhet radio and television receivers, in the intermediate frequency (IF), oscillator and radio frequency (RF) circuits. They are adjusted into the right position during the alignment procedure of the receiver.

Mica phyllosilicate minerals

The mica group of sheet silicate (phyllosilicate) minerals includes several closely related materials having nearly perfect basal cleavage. All are monoclinic, with a tendency towards pseudohexagonal crystals, and are similar in chemical composition. The nearly perfect cleavage, which is the most prominent characteristic of mica, is explained by the hexagonal sheet-like arrangement of its atoms.

Special forms of mechanically variable capacitors

Various forms of variable capacitors Variable-capacitors.agr.jpg
Various forms of variable capacitors

Multiple sections

Very often, multiple stator/rotor sections are arranged behind one another on the same axis, allowing for several tuned circuits to be adjusted using the same control, e.g. a preselector, an input filter and the corresponding oscillator in a receiver circuit. The sections can have identical or different nominal capacitances, e.g. 2 × 330 pF for AM filter and oscillator, plus 3 × 45 pF for two filters and an oscillator in the FM section of the same receiver. Capacitors with multiple sections often include trimmer capacitors in parallel to the variable sections, used to adjust all tuned circuits to the same frequency.


A butterfly capacitor is a form of rotary variable capacitor with two independent sets of stator plates opposing each other, and a butterfly-shaped rotor arranged so that turning the rotor will vary the capacitances between the rotor and either stator equally.

Butterfly A group of insects in the order Lepidoptera

Butterflies are insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths. Adult butterflies have large, often brightly coloured wings, and conspicuous, fluttering flight. The group comprises the large superfamily Papilionoidea, which contains at least one former group, the skippers, and the most recent analyses suggest it also contains the moth-butterflies. Butterfly fossils date to the Paleocene, which was about 56 million years ago.

Butterfly capacitors are used in symmetrical tuned circuits, e.g. RF power amplifier stages in push-pull configuration or symmetrical antenna tuners where the rotor needs to be "cold", i.e. connected to RF (but not necessarily DC) ground potential. Since the peak RF current normally flows from one stator to the other without going through wiper contacts, butterfly capacitors can handle large resonance RF currents, e.g. in magnetic loop antennas.

In a butterfly capacitor, the stators and each half of the rotor can only cover a maximum angle of 90° since there must be a position without rotor/stator overlap corresponding to minimum capacity, therefore a turn of only 90° covers the entire capacitance range. [1]

Split stator

The closely related split stator variable capacitor does not have the limitation of 90° angle since it uses two separate packs of rotor electrodes arranged axially behind one another. Unlike in a capacitor with several sections, the rotor plates in a split stator capacitor are mounted on opposite sides of the rotor axis. While the split stator capacitor benefits from larger electrodes compared to the butterfly capacitor, as well as a rotation angle of up to 180°, the separation of rotor plates incurs some losses since RF current has to pass the rotor axis instead of flowing straight through each rotor vane.


Differential variable capacitors also have two independent stators, but unlike in the butterfly capacitor where capacities on both sides increase equally as the rotor is turned, in a differential variable capacitor one section's capacity will increase while the other section's decreases, keeping the stator-to-stator capacitance constant. Differential variable capacitors can therefore be used in capacitive potentiometric circuits.


The variable capacitor with air dielectric was invented by the Hungarian engineer Dezső Korda. He received a German patent for the invention on 13 December 1893. [2]

Electronically controlled capacitance

Voltage tuned capacitance

The thickness of the depletion layer of a reverse-biased semiconductor diode varies with the DC voltage applied across the diode. Any diode exhibits this effect (including p/n junctions in transistors), but devices specifically sold as variable capacitance diodes (also called varactors or varicaps) are designed with a large junction area and a doping profile specifically designed to maximize capacitance.

Their use is limited to low signal amplitudes to avoid obvious distortions as the capacitance would be affected by the change of signal voltage, precluding their use in the input stages of high-quality RF communications receivers, where they would add unacceptable levels of intermodulation. At VHF/UHF frequencies, e.g. in FM Radio or TV tuners, dynamic range is limited by noise rather than large signal handling requirements, and varicaps are commonly used in the signal path.

Varicaps are used for frequency modulation of oscillators, and to make high-frequency voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs), the core component in phase-locked loop (PLL) frequency synthesizers that are ubiquitous in modern communications equipment.

BST device are based on Barium Strontium Titanate and vary the capacitance by applying high voltage to the device. They have a dedicated analogue control input and therefore introduce less non-linearities than varactor diodes, especially for higher signal voltages. The limitations for BST are stability over temperature and linearity in demanding applications.

Digitally tuned capacitance

A digitally tuned capacitor is an IC variable capacitor based on several technologies. MEMS, BST and SOI/SOS devices are available from a number of suppliers and vary in capacitance range, quality factor and resolution for different RF tuning applications.

MEMS devices have the highest quality factor and are highly linear, and therefore are suitable for antenna aperture tuning, dynamic impedance matching, power amplifier load matching and adjustable filters. RF tuning MEMS are still a relatively new technology and has not yet been accepted broadly.

SOI/SOS tuning devices are constructed as solid state FET switches built on insulated CMOS wafers and use MIM caps arranged in binary-weighted values to achieve different capacitance values. SOI/SOS switches have high lineary and are well suited to low power applications where high voltages are not present. High voltage endurance requires multiple FET devices in series which adds series resistance and lowers the quality factor.

The capacitance values are designed for antenna impedance matching in multi-band LTE GSM/WCDMA cellular handsets and mobile TV receivers that operate over wide frequency ranges, such as the European DVB-H and Japanese ISDB-T mobile TV systems. [3]


Variable capacitance is sometimes used to convert physical phenomena into electrical signals.


  1. ^ A makeshift version of this design, using two tin cans with slightly different diameter isolated by cardboard, has been used to make variable capacitors in emergencies, e.g. by concentration camp inmates.
  2. While mechanical variable capacitors have been used and are still used extensively in electronics, their use in radios is diminishing. Radios now often use digital frequency synthesizers for tuning rather than analog (tank) oscillators.

Related Research Articles

Electronic oscillator electronic circuit that produces a repetitive, oscillating electronic signal, often a sine wave or a square wave

An electronic oscillator is an electronic circuit that produces a periodic, oscillating electronic signal, often a sine wave or a square wave. Oscillators convert direct current (DC) from a power supply to an alternating current (AC) signal. They are widely used in many electronic devices ranging from simplest clock generators to digital instruments and complex computers and peripherals etc. Common examples of signals generated by oscillators include signals broadcast by radio and television transmitters, clock signals that regulate computers and quartz clocks, and the sounds produced by electronic beepers and video games.

Amplifier electronic device that can increase the power of a signal

An amplifier, electronic amplifier or (informally) amp is an electronic device that can increase the power of a signal. It is a two-port electronic circuit that uses electric power from a power supply to increase the amplitude of a signal applied to its input terminals, producing a proportionally greater amplitude signal at its output. The amount of amplification provided by an amplifier is measured by its gain: the ratio of output voltage, current, or power to input. An amplifier is a circuit that has a power gain greater than one.

Superheterodyne receiver common type of radio receiver that shifts the received signal to an easily-processed intermediate frequency

A superheterodyne receiver, often shortened to superhet, is a type of radio receiver that uses frequency mixing to convert a received signal to a fixed intermediate frequency (IF) which can be more conveniently processed than the original carrier frequency. It was invented by US engineer Edwin Armstrong in 1918 during World War I. Virtually all modern radio receivers use the superheterodyne principle.

Varicap semiconductor diode used as voltage-controlled capacitor

In electronics, a varicap diode, varactor diode, variable capacitance diode, variable reactance diode or tuning diode is a type of diode designed to exploit the voltage-dependent capacitance of a reverse-biased p–n junction.

The Hartley oscillator is an electronic oscillator circuit in which the oscillation frequency is determined by a tuned circuit consisting of capacitors and inductors, that is, an LC oscillator. The circuit was invented in 1915 by American engineer Ralph Hartley. The distinguishing feature of the Hartley oscillator is that the tuned circuit consists of a single capacitor in parallel with two inductors in series, and the feedback signal needed for oscillation is taken from the center connection of the two inductors.

A variable frequency oscillator (VFO) in electronics is an oscillator whose frequency can be tuned over some range. It is a necessary component in any tunable radio receiver or transmitter that works by the superheterodyne principle, and controls the frequency to which the apparatus is tuned.

Tuned radio frequency receiver

A tuned radio frequency receiver is a type of radio receiver that is composed of one or more tuned radio frequency (RF) amplifier stages followed by a detector (demodulator) circuit to extract the audio signal and usually an audio frequency amplifier. This type of receiver was popular in the 1920s. Early examples could be tedious to operate because when tuning in a station each stage had to be individually adjusted to the station's frequency, but later models had ganged tuning, the tuning mechanisms of all stages being linked together, and operated by just one control knob. By the mid 1930s, it was replaced by the superheterodyne receiver patented by Edwin Armstrong.

Voltage-controlled oscillator

A voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) is an electronic oscillator whose oscillation frequency is controlled by a voltage input. The applied input voltage determines the instantaneous oscillation frequency. Consequently, a VCO can be used for frequency modulation (FM) or phase modulation (PM) by applying a modulating signal to the control input. A VCO is also an integral part of a phase-locked loop.

A Colpitts oscillator, invented in 1918 by American engineer Edwin H. Colpitts, is one of a number of designs for LC oscillators, electronic oscillators that use a combination of inductors (L) and capacitors (C) to produce an oscillation at a certain frequency. The distinguishing feature of the Colpitts oscillator is that the feedback for the active device is taken from a voltage divider made of two capacitors in series across the inductor.

Tuner (radio) frequency selection subsystem for a radio receiver

A tuner is a subsystem that receives radio frequency (RF) transmissions like radio broadcasts and converts the selected carrier frequency and its associated bandwidth into a fixed frequency that is suitable for further processing, usually because a lower frequency is used on the output. Broadcast FM/AM transmissions usually feed this intermediate frequency (IF) directly into a demodulator that convert the radio signal into audio-frequency signals that can be fed into an amplifier to drive a loudspeaker.

Electronic component basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields

An electronic component is any basic discrete device or physical entity in an electronic system used to affect electrons or their associated fields. Electronic components are mostly industrial products, available in a singular form and are not to be confused with electrical elements, which are conceptual abstractions representing idealized electronic components.

Electronic symbol pictogram used to represent various electrical and electronic devices in a schematic diagram of an electrical or electronic circuit

An electronic symbol is a pictogram used to represent various electrical and electronic devices or functions, such as wires, batteries, resistors, and transistors, in a schematic diagram of an electrical or electronic circuit. These symbols are largely standardized internationally today, but may vary from country to country, or engineering discipline, based on traditional conventions.

Grid-leak detector

A grid leak detector is an electronic circuit that demodulates an amplitude modulated alternating current and amplifies the recovered modulating voltage. The circuit utilizes the non-linear cathode to control grid conduction characteristic and the amplification factor of a vacuum tube. Invented by Lee De Forest around 1912, it was used as the detector (demodulator) in the first vacuum tube radio receivers until the 1930s.

In electronics, motorboating is a type of low frequency parasitic oscillation that sometimes occurs in audio and radio equipment and often manifests itself as a sound similar to an idling motorboat engine, a "put-put-put", in audio output from speakers or earphones. It is a problem encountered particularly in radio transceivers and older vacuum tube audio systems, guitar amplifiers, PA systems and is caused by some type of unwanted feedback in the circuit. The amplifying devices in audio and radio equipment are vulnerable to a variety of feedback problems, which can cause distinctive noise in the output. The term motorboating is applied to oscillations whose frequency is below the range of hearing, from 1 to 10 hertz, so the individual oscillations are heard as pulses. Sometimes the oscillations can even be seen visually as the woofer cones in speakers slowly moving in and out.

Grid dip oscillator

Grid dip oscillator (GDO), also called grid dip meter, gate dip meter, dip meter, or just dipper, is a type of electronic instrument that measures the resonant frequency of unconnected, nearby radio frequency circuits. It is a variable frequency oscillator that circulates a small-amplitude signal through an exposed coil, whose electromagnetic field can interact with adjacent circuitry. The oscillator loses power when its coil is near a circuit that resonates at the same frequency. A meter on the GDO registers the amplitude drop, or “dip”, hence the name.

Detector (radio)

In radio, a detector is a device or circuit that extracts information from a modulated radio frequency current or voltage. The term dates from the first three decades of radio (1888-1918). Unlike modern radio stations which transmit sound on an uninterrupted carrier wave, early radio stations transmitted information by radiotelegraphy. The transmitter was switched on and off to produce long or short periods of radio waves, spelling out text messages in Morse code. Therefore, early radio receivers had only to distinguish between the presence or absence of a radio signal. The device that performed this function in the receiver circuit was called a detector. A variety of different detector devices, such as the coherer, electrolytic detector, magnetic detector and the crystal detector, were used during the wireless telegraphy era until superseded by vacuum tube technology.

Plate detector (radio)

In electronics, a plate detector is a vacuum tube circuit in which an amplifying tube having a control grid is operated in a non-linear region of its grid voltage versus plate current transfer characteristic near plate current cutoff in order to demodulate an amplitude modulated carrier signal. This differs from the grid leak detector, which utilizes non-linearity of the grid voltage versus grid current characteristic for demodulation. It also differs from the diode detector, which is a two terminal device.

Applications of capacitors Uses Of Capacitors In Daily Life.

Capacitors have many uses in electronic and electrical systems. They are so ubiquitous that it is rare that an electrical product does not include at least one for some purpose.

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  1. G3NPF and M1AIM Home Page Technical Section (Capacitors)
  2. George Washington Pierce: Principles of wireless telegraphy, McGraw-Hill book company, New York, 1910, p. 114. (Photo of rotary capacitor of Korda).
  3. Frenzel, Louis (29 January 2009). "Automatic Digital Antenna Tuning Fits Multiple Wireless Applications". Electronic Design. Archived from the original on 3 August 2014. Retrieved 23 January 2017.