Why do Tantalum Capacitors fail? Its Characteristics & Uses

Tantalum capacitors are a type of polarized electrolytic capacitor. It uses a tantalum metal as the anode (+), a Manganese dioxide (MnO2) electrolyte as the cathode (-), and a thin coating of tantalum oxide acting as the dielectric. In this blog post, we will discuss the characteristics, uses, and failure reasons of tantalum capacitors.

Tantalum (Ta) is a silver-gray metal with the atomic number 73.

They have excellent frequency characteristics as well as long-term stability. Due to their infinite shelf life, high capacitance, and reliability, they are used in circuits for electronic devices like computers, cars, cell phones, and other devices. One of the drawbacks of tantalum capacitors is the ‘unfavorable failure mode’ which results in thermal runaways.

Practical parameters of a tantalum capacitor

A tantalum capacitor
A tantalum capacitor
DielectricTantalum pentoxide
Working Voltage2.5 to 50V
Capacitance0.47 to 1000µF
Parameters of a tantalum capacitor

Construction of tantalum capacitors

Construction of a tantalum capacitor
Construction of a tantalum capacitor

The capacitor is made of two metal plates (anode and cathode) separated by an insulating material called the dielectric. One of the metal plates is coated with a layer of oxide, which acts as the capacitor’s dielectric. The other metal plate is coated with a layer of tantalum metal.

When an electric potential difference is applied across the capacitor’s plates, an electric field develops across the dielectric, storing electrical energy in the form of charge separation. The capacitor can then release this stored energy when needed, providing a power boost to circuits.

What are the characteristics of a tantalum capacitor?

Different tantalum capacitors
Different tantalum capacitors
  • Tantalum capacitor uses tantalum powder with small particles to create a very thin dielectric layer which provides a high permittivity resulting in higher volumetric efficiency.
  • It possesses a wide operating temperature of –50 to 100 degrees Celsius.
  • Tantalum capacitors exhibit long-term stability with high insulation resistance and low leakage current.
  • Tantalum capacitors operate above 50kHZ. As frequency increases, it experiences a small decrease in capacity. (At 10kHZ tantalum capacitor’s capacity drops by less than 20%)
Note: Normally a tantalum capacitor is a polarized capacitor. To make a non-polarized or bipolar tantalum capacitor, two tantalum capacitors are connected in series and their anodes are oriented in the opposite direction.

Must read: 25 Types of Capacitors & their Uses (Explained in detail)

Why do tantalum capacitors fail?

Damaged tantalum capacitor
Damaged tantalum capacitor

The unfavorable failure mode is one of the major drawbacks of the tantalum capacitor. According to ASM International’s paper, Tantalum capacitor failure modes are classified into three major categories.

High Leakage Current

When a capacitor is subject to a high leakage current, it damages the capacitor. This is because the current passing through the capacitor causes heating of the dielectric material, which in turn causes further leakage current and more heating. The process continues until the dielectric material is completely degraded, at which point the capacitor will fail.

In order to avoid this type of damage, it is important to use caution when handling tantalum capacitors and to be aware of the potential for high leakage currents. if they are not properly taken care of, they can be easily damaged.

Low capacitance

The low capacitance of a tantalum capacitor can damage the capacitor in two ways.

  • First, it can cause an increase in equivalent series resistance (ESR). This happens because the reactance of the capacitor decreases as the capacitance decreases. When the reactance of the capacitor decreases, the current through the capacitor increases. The increased current causes an increase in IR drop across the dielectric, and this increases ESR.
  • Second, low capacitance can cause an increase in the likelihood of a dielectric breakdown. This is because the electric field across the dielectric increases as capacitance decreases. When the electric field across the dielectric increases, it causes a higher probability of dielectric breakdown.

High ESR (Equivalent Series Resistance)

As discussed above high ESR may damage a tantalum capacitor. In order to prevent this from happening, it is important to choose a tantalum capacitor with low ESR. You can also use a heatsink to help dissipate heat and protect the capacitor from damage.

To avoid failure actions, external failsafe circuitry such as current limiters and thermal fuses should be used in combination with tantalum capacitors.

What is a tantalum capacitor used for?

Tantalum capacitors are used in a variety of applications, particularly in modern electronics for higher stability to withstand a wide range of temperatures and frequencies, long-term reliability, and record-high volumetric efficiency. These include:

  • Sample and hold circuits: Low leakage current helps in long hold duration.
  • Military applications: as they do not dry out and change capacitance frequently
  • Life-sustaining medical devices (cardio implants): A tantalum capacitor detects irregular heartbeats and quickly delivers an electric countershock.
  • Surface mount tantalum capacitors are used for power supply filtering in computer motherboards and cell phones due to their long-term stability and small size.
  • Tantalum electrolytic capacitors are suitable for storing electrical energy and also for passing or bypassing low-frequency signals due to their large capacitance.
  • Audio circuits: They are used in audio circuits, due to their capacity to reduce the loss of small currents for high-frequency audio, which improves the sound quality.

Read also: Guide to Ceramic Capacitors- Uses, Types, Characteristics & FAQs

What is the difference between tantalum and ceramic capacitors?

Tantalum and ceramic capacitors serve similar purposes, but they are made using different materials and perform very differently. When it comes to performance, there are a few key differences between tantalum and ceramic capacitors:

ParameterTantalum CapacitorCeramic Capacitor
AgingDo not ageThey age with time
Type They are polarized capacitors. So they can be connected  to a DC power source by maintaining proper polarityThey are non-polarized capacitors. So it can be connected to an AC source and have a higher frequency response
Temperature coefficientThey have a linear temperature coefficientThey have a non-linear temperature coefficient
Capacitance variationWith respect to the applied voltage, there is no indicated capacitance variationThe capacitance changes with respect to the applied voltage
Difference between Tantalum and Ceramic capacitors

Read also: What is the Difference Between Battery and Capacitor? (Solved)


Why are tantalum capacitors so expensive?

Tantalum material is fairly a rare metal and it needs large mining which leads to high prices of tantalum capacitors.

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