Most capacitors have a dielectric spacer, which increases their capacitance compared to air or a vacuum. In order to maximise the charge that a capacitor can hold, the dielectric material needs to have as high a permittivity as possible, while also having as high a breakdown voltage as possible. The dielectric also needs to have as low a loss with frequency as possible.
However, low value capacitors are available with a vacuum between their plates to allow extremely high voltage operation and low losses. Variable capacitors with their plates open to the atmosphere were commonly used in radio tuning circuits. Later designs use polymer foil dielectric between the moving and stationary plates, with no significant air space between the plates.
Several solid dielectrics are available, including paper, plastic, glass, mica and ceramic.
Paper was used extensively in older capacitors and offers relatively high voltage performance. However, paper absorbs moisture, and has been largely replaced by plastic film capacitors.
Most of the plastic films now used offer better stability and ageing performance than such older dielectrics such as oiled paper, which makes them useful in timer circuits, although they may be limited to relatively low operating temperatures and frequencies, because of the limitations of the plastic film being used. Large plastic film capacitors are used extensively in suppression circuits, motor start circuits, and power factor correction circuits.
Ceramic capacitors are generally small, cheap and useful for high frequency applications, although their capacitance varies strongly with voltage and temperature and they age poorly. They can also suffer from the piezoelectric effect. Ceramic capacitors are broadly categorized as class 1 dielectrics, which have predictable variation of capacitance with temperature or class 2 dielectrics, which can operate at higher voltage. Modern multilayer ceramics are usually quite small, but some types have inherently wide value tolerances, microphonic issues, and are usually physically brittle.
Glass and mica capacitors are extremely reliable, stable and tolerant to high temperatures and voltages, but are too expensive for most mainstream applications.
Electrolytic capacitors and supercapacitors are used to store small and larger amounts of energy, respectively, ceramic capacitors are often used in resonators, and parasitic capacitance occurs in circuits wherever the simple conductor-insulator-conductor structure is formed unintentionally by the configuration of the circuit layout.
Electrolytic capacitors use an aluminum or tantalum plate with an oxide dielectric layer. The second electrode is a liquid electrolyte, connected to the circuit by another foil plate. Electrolytic capacitors offer very high capacitance but suffer from poor tolerances, high instability, gradual loss of capacitance especially when subjected to heat, and high leakage current. Poor quality capacitors may leak electrolyte, which is harmful to printed circuit boards. The conductivity of the electrolyte drops at low temperatures, which increases equivalent series resistance. While widely used for power-supply conditioning, poor high-frequency characteristics make them unsuitable for many applications. Electrolytic capacitors suffer from self-degradation if unused for a period (around a year), and when full power is applied may short circuit, permanently damaging the capacitor and usually blowing a fuse or causing failure of rectifier diodes. For example, in older equipment, this may cause arcing in rectifier tubes. They can be restored before use by gradually applying the operating voltage, often performed on antique vacuum tube equipment over a period of thirty minutes by using a variable transformer to supply AC power. The use of this technique may be less satisfactory for some solid state equipment, which may be damaged by operation below its normal power range, requiring that the power supply first be isolated from the consuming circuits. Such remedies may not be applicable to modern high-frequency power supplies as these produce full output voltage even with reduced input.
Tantalum capacitors offer better frequency and temperature characteristics than aluminum, but higher dielectric absorption and leakage.
Polymer capacitors (OS-CON, OC-CON, KO, AO) use solid conductive polymer (or polymerized organic semiconductor) as electrolyte and offer longer life and lower ESR at higher cost than standard electrolytic capacitors.
A feedthrough capacitor is a component that, while not serving as its main use, has capacitance and is used to conduct signals through a conductive sheet.
Several other types of capacitor are available for specialist applications. Supercapacitors store large amounts of energy. Supercapacitors made from carbon aerogel, carbon nanotubes, or highly porous electrode materials, offer extremely high capacitance (up to 5 kF as of 2010) and can be used in some applications instead of rechargeable batteries. Alternating current capacitors are specifically designed to work on line (mains) voltage AC power circuits. They are commonly used in electric motor circuits and are often designed to handle large currents, so they tend to be physically large. They are usually ruggedly packaged, often in metal cases that can be easily grounded/earthed. They also are designed with direct current breakdown voltages of at least five times the maximum AC voltage.