An electrolytic capacitor keeps charging by itself

  • #1
Philip Koeck
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This is related to an earlier post (https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/an-electrolytic-capacitor-charges-by-itself.1008156/), but there's a new angle to it, therefore the new thread.

I have two 100 microF electrolyte capacitors in my office, one is connected to a volt meter, the other is not. I short circuit both of them every 1 to 2 weeks and I've been doing this for about half a year.
Within about a week they build up a potential of about 130 mV for the one connected to the volt meter and 150 mV for the disconnected one.
I just short circuit them, check that the voltage is zero, observe that the voltage is slowly building up and then wait a week before measuring the voltage again and it's always roughly the same value.
I've also put one capacitor into a metal container (thermos flask) to shield off EM-waves, but it still charges to roughly the same voltage.

Can this be explained by dielectric absorption?
Shouldn't the effect wear off after some time?
 
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  • #2
Philip Koeck said:
Can this be explained by dielectric absorption?
Shouldn't the effect wear off after some time?
During manufacture, an electrolytic capacitor is electrically conditioned to develop the polarity of the capacitor. The anode and cathode develop different surface chemistry, that is maintained by the operating voltage.

The capacitor can also be analysed as an electrochemical cell, with a very high internal resistance. The cell could be charged by thermal effects. That would explain why an electrolytic capacitor might repeatedly recover the same small cell voltage.
 
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  • #3
I believe capacitors generally exhibit a relaxation effect, whereby they acquire a small charge some time after a discharge.
 
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  • #4
Baluncore said:
The cell could be charged by thermal effects. That would explain why an electrolytic capacitor might repeatedly recover the same small cell voltage.
Are you saying that heat is converted into potential energy?
 
  • #5
That is weird. Do you see the series trending towards zero?
It's not enough to be a thermocouple like effect, that would be 30mV or less.
I'll vote for @Baluncore's idea, it's a capacitor AND a battery. How long do you discharge it? What if you left it shorted for longer, then did the test?
 
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  • #6
Philip Koeck said:
Are you saying that heat is converted into potential energy?
I don't know, we are all guessing.

The thermocouple Seebeck effect is too small, and appears between metallic connections where there is no series resistance, such as the electrolyte.

I am thinking here that this is more like the Peltier effect. Two chemically different electrodes have been electroformed, P and N, which is similar to an electrolytic rectifier.

My thermal conversion suspicion, comes from the band-gap junction voltage developed, 140 mV is long infra-red ≈ 9000 nm. It smells like a PiN diode.

Metal oxide rectifiers, that also need to be electroformed, had junction characteristics dependent on impurities. It may not be the aluminium that is used in the electrolytic capacitor, but the terminal material and bonding that is forming the critical junction with the electrolyte. The capacitor may just be efficiently storing the charge.
 
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  • #7
DaveE said:
That is weird. Do you see the series trending towards zero?
It's not enough to be a thermocouple like effect, that would be 30mV or less.
I'll vote for @Baluncore's idea, it's a capacitor AND a battery. How long do you discharge it? What if you left it shorted for longer, then did the test?
I would also expect the voltage to decrease with time if it comes from some sort of chemical effect, but so far it doesn't seem to do that. It does fluctuate a bit, though.
 
  • #8
Baluncore said:
I don't know, we are all guessing.

The thermocouple Seebeck effect is too small, and appears between metallic connections where there is no series resistance, such as the electrolyte.

I am thinking here that this is more like the Peltier effect. Two chemically different electrodes have been electroformed, P and N, which is similar to an electrolytic rectifier.

My thermal conversion suspicion, comes from the band-gap junction voltage developed, 140 mV is long infra-red ≈ 9000 nm. It smells like a PiN diode.

Metal oxide rectifiers, that also need to be electroformed, had junction characteristics dependent on impurities. It may not be the aluminium that is used in the electrolytic capacitor, but the terminal material and bonding that is forming the critical junction with the electrolyte. The capacitor may just be efficiently storing the charge.
The temperature in my office is far from constant. It gets warm during the day and I assume it cools down quite a bit during night.
Maybe the radial temperature gradient in the capacitor is the reason for the voltage.
This is definitely a working hypothesis one could test.
 
  • #9
Philip Koeck said:
The temperature in my office is far from constant. It gets warm during the day and I assume it cools down quite a bit during night.
Maybe the radial temperature gradient in the capacitor is the reason for the voltage.
This is definitely a working hypothesis one could test.
I'll retract that idea. I can watch the voltage build up in the middle of the day when there can't really be any temperature gradient in the capacitor.
 
  • #10
DaveE said:
That is weird. Do you see the series trending towards zero?
It's not enough to be a thermocouple like effect, that would be 30mV or less.
I'll vote for @Baluncore's idea, it's a capacitor AND a battery. How long do you discharge it? What if you left it shorted for longer, then did the test?
I discharge them for a few seconds each time, but the voltage does go to zero and then it starts rising again immediately. To go above 100 mV takes 4 - 6 days, I would estimate.

I'll try shorting them for a few hours now and see what happens by the end of next week.
 
Last edited:
  • #11
I was interested enough to try this myself with 5 very old 100uF, 63V Al caps; in storage for at least 10 years. They were tested OK for capacitance and df and shorted for a day. Here's what I saw:

1711432909857.png
 
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  • #12
Here are my new results:
I shorted the two capacitors for about 2 hours on the 14th of March.
The disconnected one has reached about 145 mV today (after 12 days) but the one connected to a voltmeter is still below 110 mV.
It looks a bit like the process is slowing down, but very gradually.

It would be interesting to test this at very low temperature, such as in a -80 freezer, and also at high temperature, maybe +80 C.
I would think there's some sort of order in the electrolyte gel that is converted to a macroscopic charge separation due to thermal motion. Something like that has been hinted at in several posts in this thread.
 
  • #13
DaveE said:
I was interested enough to try this myself with 5 very old 100uF, 63V Al caps; in storage for at least 10 years. They were tested OK for capacitance and df and shorted for a day. Here's what I saw:

View attachment 342357
All 5 level off after about 200 hours. Number 2 is from a different production batch, maybe?

Are you going to repeat the measurements to see whether they reach the same voltages again?
 
  • #14
Philip Koeck said:
Here are my new results:
I shorted the two capacitors for about 2 hours on the 14th of March.
The disconnected one has reached about 145 mV today (after 12 days) but the one connected to a voltmeter is still below 110 mV.
It looks a bit like the process is slowing down, but very gradually.

It would be interesting to test this at very low temperature, such as in a -80 freezer, and also at high temperature, maybe +80 C.
I would think there's some sort of order in the electrolyte gel that is converted to a macroscopic charge separation due to thermal motion. Something like that has been hinted at in several posts in this thread.
Now the one connected to the volt meter is finally giving up, it seems.
Yesterday it was above 100 mV but today it has been dropping steadily and was below 50 mV sometime in the afternoon.
 
  • #15
They laughed when I said I could tap into the vacuum energy...
 
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