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Step 1

Walter would like to build an electronic device at home. He knows that to maintain power supply while
batteries are being changed he can use a capacitor. Indeed capacitors are used to store electrical energy.

Walter knows that the capacitor can store a quantity of electrical charge (Q) that is proportional to the
applied voltage (V), being the capacitance (C) the proportionality constant. The capacitance depends only
on the geometrical properties of the device.
Lets imagine the simplest circuit he can build to model the charging process.

i
C

Where R is the resistance of the wires or any other resistance in the circuit and i is the electric current
flowing in the circuit.

Can you help Walter writing the equation which describes the behavior of the circuit? (Hint: it holds the
Ohms law V=Ri)

V=_____________________________________________________________________________________
Now rewrite the equation in terms of charge Q and its variation with respect to time (Hint: think about the
relation between current and charge).

V=_____________________________________________________________________________________

Describe in your own words the meaning of this equation, what happens to the charge?

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_______________________________________________________________________________________
Is it similar or different to other equations you have already studied?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
Are you able to solve it?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
What is the main difficulty in solving it?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
How do you expect the solution to look like?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
Walter thinks that the charging process is an instantaneous process; do you think he is right? If not how
would you represent it as a function of time?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
Walter is now very happy since he managed to obtain a charged electric battery!
Hes wondering what happens to the cumulated charge in the capacitor when the voltage applied to the
circuit goes to 0. In your opinion is the equation substantially different from the previous one?

i
C

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Step 2
Lets try to reproduce Walters experience
by measuring the capacitor voltage (Vc) for
both charge and discharge processes. Now
try to analyze the data with a spread sheet:
you want to understand how the charge
changes with respect to time in order to
compare the experimental behavior with
C=
R=
V=
t =
1. Build the charge data from the Vc
2. Plot the charge as a function of
time
The points in the plots represent the values of the charge evaluated at certain times, but the charge is
changing with continuity. So you can consider these points as the evaluation of the continuous function
Q(t) for t = 0, t, 2t, 3t
What is the relationship between this function and the equation you have been considering?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
Analyze the data with a spread sheet also for the discharging process.

Step 3
As you can see the main difficulty in solving the equation is the presence of the derivative.
Typically in mathematics such a problem can be approached by a discretization method. In this case to
simplify the problem the derivative can be approximated with its discrete counterpart, the incremental
ratio

Q
.
t

Q(t)
+
C

1. Substitute the derivative with the incremental ratio.

dQ(t)
dt

_____________________________________________________________________________________
2. Knowing that Q = Q(t + t) Q(t) now find Q(t + t)

_____________________________________________________________________________________
3. Using the spread sheet evaluate the charge in the capacitor starting at t=0 and incrementing the
time by t at each step. (like the table here below)
t
0
t

()

( + )

4. Plot your approximation of the charge together with the experimental measurement. Is there a
relationship between them?
What is the relationship between this set of points and the continuous curve Q(t)?
5. Repeat this analysis for the discharge process.

Walter is satisfied about his discovery: he actually understood that the function Q(t), whose exact form he
doesnt know yet, is the solution of the equation of the circuit.
For the first time Walter encountered an equation whose solution is a function!!

Step 4
So far he knows how to approximate this solution but he would like to obtain the exact expression. Can you
help Walter find it?
Recalling that

dQ(t)
dt

= Q (t)

Q(t)
C

+ R Q (t)

To get to the analytical solution the idea is to isolate Q(t):

Q(t)=___________________________________________________________________________________
And then bring to the left-hand side all terms containing Q(t)

_____________________________________________________________________________________
Finally you can remove the derivative by integrating both sides with respect to t.
Recall that Q(t) dt = dQ(t) where dQ(t) is the differential of Q.

dQ
1
=
dt
CV Q RC

In this way you separated the terms containing the charge Q(t) from the ones containing the time t.
Solve the integrals (remember to add only one constant K) and extract Q as a function t.

Q(t)=___________________________________________________________________________________
Since there is the constant K which can assume any value what you found is actually a family of solutions.
In the charging process Q(0)=0 so you can determine your solution.

Q(t)=___________________________________________________________________________________
Plot the solution and compare the curve with the previous plots.
Walter says: Fantastic!
Find by yourself the exact solution for the discharge process. Hint: in this case Q(0) is the maximum charge
the capacitor stored in the charging process.