Significance of the RC time constant, or tau, for super capacitors

Blog Post created by EdBrorein Employee on Jun 2, 2017

When we think about an RC time constant, also known as  (tau) the first thing that usually comes to mind is its relevance to filters. But when it comes to super capacitors it has a related, but somewhat different connotation. Let me explain.


One of the things we learn about early on in electrical engineering about the RC time constant is its relevance to the corner or cutoff frequency of first-order low pass RC filter, as depicted in Figure 1.


 RC low pass filter

Figure 1: First order low pass RC filter


The cutoff frequency, fc, is the point where the AC signal amplitude is down by 3 dB, as shown in Figure 2. Correspondingly the power is down by 6 dB, which is also referred to as the half-power point. 


RC low pass filter response

Figure 2: First order low pass RC filter response


Here the cutoff frequency is related to the RC time constant by the expression:

 RC low pass filter response expression

 However, another aspect to consider about an RC time constant is its relevance to the time it takes for the capacitor to be charged and discharged.  This is significant for power and energy applications using capacitors for energy storage. The capacitor’s voltage response for charging is given by the expression:

 Capacitor voltage response expression

 For  (one time constant) the capacitor is charged up to 63.2% of its final voltage. Similarly, when discharging, the capacitor is discharged to 36.8% of its final voltage.


So, how is this of significance with a super capacitor? The fastest limiting case for charging and discharging the capacitor is when any external resistance is set to zero. Then the only limiting resistance becomes the internal equivalent series resistance (ESR) of the capacitor. The RC time constant of a capacitor is based on the R being the ESR. For conventional capacitors, the RC time constant will typically be on the order of microseconds to tens of microseconds. However, super capacitors, with capacitance in Farads to hundreds of Farads (or greater) and ESR of milliohms (or less) have RC time constants on the order of a second.  The fastest they can be charged and discharged for power applications is on the order of seconds or slower. This may sound slow compared to more conventional capacitors but this is not what you really want to compare them to. Because of their extremely large capacitance they are useful for energy storage applications. And when you compare them against other means of storing reasonable amounts of energy, like cells and batteries for example, they are then extremely fast. This makes them ideal for an application needing to store and/or deliver quick surges of energy, such as is the case of regenerative braking or high power RF amplifiers that transmit in bursts.


In comparison to electrical cells, super capacitors are considered to have high power density but low energy density, while cells and batteries have low power density but high energy density. Super capacitors and cells are at times connected in parallel, as they can nicely complement one another in then being able to provide high peak power and a lot of energy over time.


So now when you see the RC time constant, or tau, being used about super capacitors, you now know it’s meant as a figure of merit for how quickly they can be charged and discharged!


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