The Capacitor Plague

What is the Capacitor Plague?

It’s a scourge of robotic parasites that grow in your computer, infect users through the mouse, migrate to the brainstem and eventually take over the human body. Run for your lives!

Just kidding.

The Capacitor Plague is the ominously named influx of faulty capacitors from certain Taiwanese manufacturers between 1999 and 2007. Many computer manufacturers used these defective capacitors in their products, so significant numbers of computers started failing around the same time – hence the “plague” moniker.

Wait, what’s a capacitor?

Put simply, a capacitor is a device that stores energy in an electric field between two charged plates. On a computer, the capacitor is a crucial part of the motherboard, and serves to smooth out the power supply to chips. If the capacitor goes, often times, the whole computer goes.

Computers use electrolytic capacitors, which are small aluminum cylinders filled with electrolyte – a liquid or gel that conducts electricity. Problem is, the chemical formula for this liquid or gel is very tricky to get correct…

How did this happen? Theft? Espionage? Gatorade?

The Capacitor Plague finds its origins in a shoddy electrolyte formula arising from some industrial-grade espionage over in Asia. The story reads like something from a graphic novel or James Bond movie:

A (devastatingly handsome*) materials scientist worked for a major Japanese capacitor manufacturer. When he left Japan to work for a competitor – a (beautiful) Chinese capacitor manufacturer – he reproduced one of his former employer’s electrolyte formulas with the help of his staff. Then, the scientist’s (dastardly) staff defected, taking the plagiarized electrolyte formula with them! The staff then sold the formula to a number of large Taiwanese capacitor manufacturers.

Got that? But wait, there’s more!

The defecting staff members copied the electrolyte formula incorrectly! The faulty recipe produced an electrolyte formula that was unstable when housed in a finished aluminum capacitor. Unfortunately, this tendency towards instability only appeared under extensive use, and did not present under routine testing conditions.

The explosive outcome of this saga was the problem capacitors. When the faulty electrolyte heated up during repeated routine usage, it sometimes turned into hydrogen gas, ruptured its aluminum housing and boom! Brown liquid everywhere.

What Now?

If you’re having problems with your computer, see our follow-up article “How to Tell if You Have a Bad Capacitor” to check if your machine might have a faulty capacitor.

* Adjectives in parentheses are implied by the author and bear no known connection to reality, though it would be a lot cooler if they did.

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