Electrolytic capacitors use a chemical feature of some special metals, historically called valve metals, which can form an insulating oxide layer. Applying a positive voltage to the tantalum anode material in an electrolytic bath forms an oxide barrier layer with a thickness proportional to the applied voltage. This oxide layer serves as the dielectric in an electrolytic capacitor. The properties of this oxide layer compared with tantalum oxide layer are given in the following table:
|Tantalum||Tantalum pentoxide, Ta2O5||27||Amorphous||625||1.6|
|Niobium pentoxide, Nb2O5||41||Amorphous||400||2.5|
After forming a dielectric oxide on the rough anode structures, a cathode is needed. An electrolyte acts as the cathode of electrolytic capacitors. There are many different electrolytes in use. Generally, the electrolytes will be distinguished into two species, non-solid and solid electrolytes. Non-solid electrolytes are a liquid medium whose conductivity is ionic. Solid electrolytes have electron conductivity and thus solid electrolytic capacitors are more sensitive against voltages spikes or current surges. The oxide layer may be destroyed if the polarity of the applied voltage is reversed.
Every electrolytic capacitor in principle forms a plate capacitor whose capacitance is greater the larger the electrode area, A, and the permittivity, ε, are and the thinner the thickness, d, of the dielectric is.
The dielectric thickness of electrolytic capacitors is very thin, in the range of nanometers per volt. Despite this, the dielectric strengths of these oxide layers are quite high. Thus, tantalum capacitors can achieve a high volumetric capacitance compared to other capacitor types.
All etched or sintered anodes have a much larger total surface area compared to a smooth surface of the same overall dimensions. This surface area increase boosts the capacitance value by a factor of up to 200 (depending on the rated voltage) for solid tantalum electrolytic capacitors.
The volume of an electrolytic capacitor is defined by the product of capacitance and voltage, the so-called CV-volume. However, in comparing the permittivities of different oxide materials, it is seen that tantalum pentoxide has an approximately 3 times higher permittivity than aluminum oxide. Tantalum electrolytic capacitors of a given CV value can therefore be smaller than aluminum electrolytic capacitors.