Specialty Ceramic Capacitors: Robust Parts For Vigorous Markets

Introduction and Market Overview:

Value-added and application specific passive electronic components are generally considered high dollar, low volume markets where pricing is secondary to quality. These markets have the highest operating margins and represent the smaller percentage of global passive component sales, accounting for about 13% of global ceramic capacitor revenues in fiscal year 2012. In this article, we take a closer look at ceramic capacitors that are consumed in value-added and application specific market segments in a global basis. Such components are generally consumed in high voltage, high frequency, high temperature or harsh environment applications where their performance is mission critical and there is an expectation on the part of the design engineer that component failure is highly unlikely as long as the components are installed properly and within manufacturer’s guidelines. Key end-markets where value-added and application specific ceramic capacitors are consumed include a myriad of fragmented end-use market segments that can broadly be categorized under the following designations- automotive under-the-hood electronics, specialty power supplies, lighting ballasts, defense electronics, aerospace electronics, medical electronics, instrumentation and control equipment electronics, telecommunications infrastructure equipment, marine electronics, mining electronics, railroad electronics, nuclear power plant electronics and downhole pump and oil & gas equipment electronics.

The new study from Paumanok Publications, Inc., quantifies the world market for specialty ceramic capacitors

High Voltage Ceramic Capacitor Markets: 100 Volts and Above:

High voltage ceramic capacitors are defined as rated 100 Vdc or greater for the purposes of this article.  MLCC are typically applicable to 5 kV, and represent the largest market segment, followed by product markets between 5 and 20 kV, whereby the majority of these applications are almost exclusively single layer discs, or multilayered radial leaded capacitors in design and seldom exceed 20 kV. Ceramic capacitor applications greater than 20 kV are “doorknob” types, otherwise known as valve block designs and maximize out at about 100 kV; however it should be known that applications for capacitors exist in power supplies greater than 100 kV, although these applications are usually satisfied by power film capacitors (polypropylene dielectric).  The majority of specialty power supply applications that require high voltage ceramic capacitors within the definitions described here are for ultimate consumption in the test equipment market, the medical test and scan equipment market, the semiconductor manufacturing equipment market and the defense and aerospace electronics industry.  The defense and aerospace markets are primarily for applications in pulse forming radar, missile power up, satellites and space probes and in various laboratory test environments. Some high volume applications, for larger volume consumption exist in the form of safety capacitors for interference suppression in line voltage equipment (i.e. smoke detectors, fire alarms and lighting ballasts from 50 to 2500 Vac) 630 Vdc tip and ring applications for telecom infrastructure (i.e. in subscriber line interface cards), or in unusual market segments, such as undersea cable transmitters, TV transmitters, and pumped lasers.

High Frequency Ceramic Capacitor Markets- UHF, SHF and EHF:

Paumanok research notes with interest that the majority of product applications for high frequency ceramic capacitors in the Ultra-High, Super-High and Extremely High Frequency range fall into the 1 Ghz to 300+Ghz range, and that the majority of products within this frequency band are defense related; however, commercial applications, including PCN, PCS and 3G and 4D (LTE) wireless networks and wireless CATV applications, and Wireless LAN obviously contribute to a large portion of the marketplace as well. Paumanok also notes a direct correlation between Magnetrons and large revenue centers in the high frequency range for ceramic capacitors, including applications in MRI medical equipment, semiconductor sputtering devices and consumer microwave ovens.  MRI equipment operates from the hundreds of Mhz into the Ghz range.  The MRI trend is that higher frequencies offer better imaging. Paumanok also notes that although defense and aerospace are lumped together because of like performance requirements; that aerospace has a larger number of applications in the high frequency range. It is also obvious however, that telecommunications infrastructure equipment for wireless phones (base stations) is the largest segment historically. In terms of overall consumption of value-added and application specific ceramic capacitors for high frequency applications in 2012, the largest segment will be for high frequency base station applications for both commercial and defense market segments; followed by medical test and scan equipment, including MRi and related scanning devices; defense communications for concentric warfare and related applications; and RF sputtering devices for semiconductor manufacturing, high frequency lasers and related industrial and laboratory test and measurement equipment. The majority of demand for high frequency ceramic capacitors in the UHF, SHF and EHF bands are for multilayered chip or multilayered radial leaded designs. The remainder are for single layered ceramic capacitor designs.  It is extremely important to note that the single layered designs, have been developed because they extend into frequency ranges that are currently unattainable by multilayered designs (primarily into the EHF and millimeter wave bands. Key performance types consumed in this segment include NPO dielectrics, X7R dielectrics, low loss porcelain dielectrics and some Z5U dielectric designs.

High Temperature Ceramic Capacitor Applications: >125 Degrees C:

The majority of all applications for high temperature ceramic capacitors are for under-the-hood automotive applications.  Which would include all class 3 to 8 on-road and off-road vehicles, although these usually max out at 150 degree C operational environments, with 175 degree C now in experimental stage.  The specialty markets that exist for very high temperature capacitor applications go to 300 degrees C (and in some instances even higher) and are usually reserved for applications in rocket motors and satellites, as well as high speed aircraft, down hole pump markets, geothermal electronics, and laboratory and some furnace applications. Automotive under-the-hood ceramic capacitors are almost all surface mount chips with respect to configuration and usually are in the X7R or X8R dielectric, depending upon the temperature requirement. For specialty high temperature applications, more radial leaded ceramic capacitor designs are thought to be sold in this segment of the marketplace, especially for sensor assemblies due to the high voltage handling capability of the radial leaded designs; but also there is increased demand for the large case size chips used in power supply assemblies for the same aerospace, oil well service and mining electronics applications. Both are good markets, but chips are limited in their voltage handling capability.

Ceramic Safety Capacitors (X & Y Capacitors):

Ceramic safety capacitors are consumed in line voltage equipment, with emphasus upon power supplies, lighting ballasts, smoke detectors and other electrical devices connected to line voltage and this market is well contested between multilayered and single layered ceramic capacitors, as well as plastic film capacitors.  Many of the single layered ceramic capacitors consumed in this segment are in the 250 Vdc range, although products exist up to 3150 Vdc and above (we note some X and Y Capacitors in the 6 kV range for example).  Ceramic capacitors consumed as X and Y safety capacitors and for applications as circuit protection devices with emphasis upon providing interference suppression in accordance with international standards and regulations governing noise generation in hardwired devices. Safety capacitors are in fact highly regulated products that must adhere to consumer regulations established by UL, CSA, VDE, IEC and other regulatory bodies.  Plastic film capacitors dominate the global market for interference suppression capacitors, but ceramic capacitors are consistently encroaching upon plastic film capacitors in this application because of their lower cost and greater volumetric efficiency.

Technical Variations Of Specialty Ceramic Capacitors:

In addition to the ceramic capacitor configurations and variations on types of dielectrics employed in value-added and application specific ceramic capacitors, there are also technical variations that can be found in the specialty segment of the market.  These include flexible termination and open mode type MLCC; as well as derivative terminations and arc-over body sprays.

  • Flex Robust Terminations and Open Mode MLCC:
  • Flexible termination and open mode type MLCC, which are basically designed to prevent ceramic body cracking during PCB flex tests, have made significant inroads into the specialty ceramic capacitor markets, and are now making inroads into the mass commercial markets. According to primary vendors, it is apparent that the entire large case size MLCC markets may move in the direction of having flexible terminations, just simply because the evidence of their superior performance is apparent; however, as an automotive vendor noted- there is a real push back on having to pay a premium to get this technology.  Regardless, the number of vendors now supplying MLCC with flexible terminations based upon polymer (instead of the traditional precious or base metal) is increasing and includes ten of the top ceramic capacitor manufacturers in the world. The majority of chips that have these flexible terminations include X7R and NPO types; although there is clear movement to include X8R and Y5V products as well.  The major consumers for this technology are the automotive manufacturers, who have a stringent flex test due to the vibration frequencies in an automobile and in the DC/DC converter and lighting ballast business where large case size chips are consumed for X and Y safety circuits.  An open-mode MLCC is designed to accomplish the same thing as a flexible termination MLCC, insomuch as the MLCC with an open-mode design can pass the flex termination and will also still operate if the MLCC cracks.  The design of the “open-mode” MLCC is one where the internal electrodes do not reach to the end of the capacitor body, but are set back to a certain degree so that if the MLCC does crack, it will not separate the electrodes from the capacitor body.
  • PGM Derivative Terminations:
  • Some specialty vendors of MLCC offer derivative terminations manufactured from platinum group metals (PGM), other than the traditional palladium + silver, including gold and platinum bearing terminations. The majority of alternative termination materials are consumed for specialty defense applications, medical applications, oilwell electronics and some minor industrial electronic applications because specifications require that the derivative terminations be employed. There are now eight vendors in the world that carry specialty terminations for MLCC, and these are primarily gold terminations or platinum terminations, with various blends of different PGM metals also available.
  • MLCC With Arc-Over Protection:
  • One of the newest technical variations being presented to ceramic capacitor customers is the MLCC with Arc-Over protection. In many high voltage applications, the possibility of an arc-over event that may cause the capacitor fail is evident.  Now ceramic capacitors being offered in the USA and in China have arc-over protection, which is either achieved through the application of an arc prevention coating, or through the manipulation of the internal structure of the MLCC. The addition of an arc-over solution, especially in high voltage and large case size MLCC, may do away with the need for an epoxy coating that is found I traditional MLCC.  We note that in many instances, high voltage large case size MLCC are now being produced that have both flexible terminations and arc-over protection, which in effect creates a more robust capacitor design, able to withstand the rigors of high voltage circuits In harsh environments.

Summary and Conclusion:

Many ceramic capacitor manufacturers today have distance themselves from the price sensitive mass commercial MLCC markets in wireless handsets, computers and TV sets and have focused instead on the niche markets where premiums remain high and price is secondary to quality.  This represents only about 13% of the market in terms of dollar value, but the premiums in these specialty segments remain high enough for many of the smaller vendors to remain profitable, even in hard economic times.  End-use market segments that are considered specialty include under-the-hood applications in automotive environments; defense and aerospace electronics, medical electronics, various aspects of the oil and gas services and prospecting industries, marine electronics, mining electronics, electric transport and other niche segments. Ceramic capacitors consumed in these harsh environments are different than traditional components with respect to the voltages, frequencies and temperatures at which they operate. Technical variations, including different dielectrics, configurations, terminations and additional differentiation is required to succeed and thrive in the space. Paumanok Publications, Inc. has determined the specialty segment, known as value-added and application specific, is a growth market for the future, for those who have the technical aptitude to compete effectively in the space. Key areas of market growth for value-added and application specific ceramic capacitors between 2012 and 2017 according to the new market study from Paumanok Publications, Inc. entitled “Value-Added & Application Specific Ceramic Capacitors: Global Market Forecasts: 2012-2017 ISBN # 1-893211-90-8 (2012)“ include 1) downhole pump applications for oilwells, 2) wireless access, 3) medical implant, 4) medical test and scan, 5) automotive under the hood, 6) defense electronics (UAV, UGV), and many others.