The Dielectric Constant

How effective a dielectric is at allowing a capacitor to store more charge depends on the material the dielectric is made from. Every material has a dielectric constant k. This is the ratio of the field without the dielectric (Eo) to the net field (E) with the dielectric:

k = Eo/E

E is always less than or equal to Eo, so the dielectric constant is greater than or equal to 1. The larger the dielectric constant, the more charge can be stored.

Completely filling the space between capacitor plates with a dielectric increases the capacitance by a factor of the dielectric constant:

C = k Co, where Co is the capacitance with no dielectric between the plates.

For a parallel-plate capacitor containing a dielectric that completely fills the space between the plates, the capacitance is given by:

C = k eo A / d

The capacitance is maximized if the dielectric constant is maximized, and the capacitor plates have large area and are placed as close together as possible.

If a metal was used for the dielectric instead of an insulator the field inside the metal would be zero, corresponding to an infinite dielectric constant. The dielectric usually fills the entire space between the capacitor plates, however, and if a metal did that it would short out the capacitor - that's why insulators are used instead.

MaterialDielectric constantDielectric Strength (kV/mm)
Vacuum1.00000 -
Air (dry)1.00059 3
Polystyrene2.6 24
Paper3.6 16
Water80 -