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College Physics 2e

19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors

College Physics 2e19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • List some uses of capacitors.
  • Express in equation form the energy stored in a capacitor.
  • Explain the function of a defibrillator.

Most of us have seen dramatizations in which medical personnel use a defibrillator to pass an electric current through a patient’s heart to get it to beat normally. (Review Figure 19.22.) Often realistic in detail, the person applying the shock directs another person to “make it 400 joules this time.” The energy delivered by the defibrillator is stored in a capacitor and can be adjusted to fit the situation. SI units of joules are often employed. Less dramatic is the use of capacitors in microelectronics, such as certain handheld calculators, to supply energy when batteries are charged. (See Figure 19.22.) Capacitors are also used to supply energy for flash lamps on cameras.

In an electronic calculator circuit the memory is preserved using large capacitors which store energy when the batteries are charged.
Figure 19.22 Energy stored in the large capacitor is used to preserve the memory of an electronic calculator when its batteries are charged. (credit: Kucharek, Wikimedia Commons)

Energy stored in a capacitor is electrical potential energy, and it is thus related to the charge QQ and voltage VV on the capacitor. We must be careful when applying the equation for electrical potential energy ΔPE=qΔVΔPE=qΔV to a capacitor. Remember that ΔPEΔPE is the potential energy of a charge qq going through a voltage ΔVΔV. But the capacitor starts with zero voltage and gradually comes up to its full voltage as it is charged. The first charge placed on a capacitor experiences a change in voltage ΔV=0ΔV=0, since the capacitor has zero voltage when uncharged. The final charge placed on a capacitor experiences ΔV=VΔV=V, since the capacitor now has its full voltage VV on it. The average voltage on the capacitor during the charging process is V/2V/2, and so the average voltage experienced by the full charge qq is V/2V/2. Thus the energy stored in a capacitor, EcapEcap, is


where QQ is the charge on a capacitor with a voltage VV applied. (Note that the energy is not QVQV, but QV/2QV/2.) Charge and voltage are related to the capacitance C C of a capacitor by Q=CVQ=CV, and so the expression for EcapEcap can be algebraically manipulated into three equivalent expressions:

E cap = QV 2 = CV 2 2 = Q 2 2C , E cap = QV 2 = CV 2 2 = Q 2 2C ,

where QQ is the charge and VV the voltage on a capacitor CC. The energy is in joules for a charge in coulombs, voltage in volts, and capacitance in farads.

Energy Stored in Capacitors

The energy stored in a capacitor can be expressed in three ways:

E cap = QV 2 = CV 2 2 = Q 2 2C , E cap = QV 2 = CV 2 2 = Q 2 2C ,

where QQ is the charge, VV is the voltage, and CC is the capacitance of the capacitor. The energy is in joules for a charge in coulombs, voltage in volts, and capacitance in farads.

In a defibrillator, the delivery of a large charge in a short burst to a set of paddles across a person’s chest can be a lifesaver. The person’s heart attack might have arisen from the onset of fast, irregular beating of the heart—cardiac or ventricular fibrillation. The application of a large shock of electrical energy can terminate the arrhythmia and allow the body’s pacemaker to resume normal patterns. Today it is common for ambulances to carry a defibrillator, which also uses an electrocardiogram to analyze the patient’s heartbeat pattern. Automated external defibrillators (AED) are found in many public places (Figure 19.23). These are designed to be used by lay persons. The device automatically diagnoses the patient’s heart condition and then applies the shock with appropriate energy and waveform. CPR is recommended in many cases before use of an AED.

Photograph of an automated external defibrillator.
Figure 19.23 Automated external defibrillators are found in many public places. These portable units provide verbal instructions for use in the important first few minutes for a person suffering a cardiac attack. (credit: Owain Davies, Wikimedia Commons)

Example 19.11

Capacitance in a Heart Defibrillator

A heart defibrillator delivers 4.00 × 10 2 J 4.00 × 10 2 J of energy by discharging a capacitor initially at 1.00 × 10 4 V 1.00 × 10 4 V . What is its capacitance?


We are given EcapEcap and VV, and we are asked to find the capacitance CC. Of the three expressions in the equation for EcapEcap, the most convenient relationship is



Solving this expression for CC and entering the given values yields

C = 2 E cap V 2 = 2 ( 4 . 00 × 10 2 J ) ( 1 . 00 × 10 4 V ) 2 = 8 . 00 × 10 6 F = 8.00 µF. C = 2 E cap V 2 = 2 ( 4 . 00 × 10 2 J ) ( 1 . 00 × 10 4 V ) 2 = 8 . 00 × 10 6 F = 8.00 µF.


This is a fairly large, but manageable, capacitance at 1.00 × 10 4 V 1.00 × 10 4 V .

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