The constant phase element

Back to: Simulating an RC-RC circuit

So far, we’ve looked at the impedance response for some ideal resistors and capacitors and some simple combinations of them. Unfortunately, in electrochemical systems we often encounter processes which don’t have a “real” equivalent electrical component, so we have to invent some.

One of the most common such circuit elements is the constant phase element (CPE, or sometimes Q). This is a common symbol for this circuit element:

constant phase element

You might think that it looks like a wonky capacitor – and you’d be right, because this circuit element exists largely to describe capacitance as it appears in real electrochemical systems, because of things like rough surfaces, or a distribution of reaction rates. It is an imperfect capacitance – the effective capacitance and ‘real’ resistance are increasing as the frequency decreases. The origins of CPE behaviour are numerous and some of them quite complex, but there are good guides explaining this elsewhere.

The mathematical definition is very similar to that of the capacitor as well:

$$\displaystyle \pmb{Z}_Q = \frac{1}{Q_0 (j \omega)^n}$$

where n is the constant phase, \((-90 \times n)\)°, and n is a number between 0 and 1. Be aware though – this is not the only possible definition of the constant phase element – it can also be defined by putting the Q_0 value inside the brackets.

So, what does the Nyquist plot look like? You might have guessed by now that the Nyquist plot for a constant phase element looks similar to a capacitor – a straight line, but with a phase of (-90 \times n)°.

It should be fairly clear by now what the Nyquist plot of a series R-CPE element, so I’ll only show the parallel case, the characteristic “depressed” semicircle.

Can I calculate the real capacitance?

\(Q_0\), according to the mathematical definition of the CPE, has units of S sn (that’s siemens-seconds-to-the-power-n), which have no real physical meaning. However, it is possible to determine the actual capacitance behind the CPE when you have a parallel R-CPE circuit. Think about the units again – you should be able to see that:

$$RQ_0 = \tau^n = (RC)^n$$

Rearranging this equation gives:

$$C = \frac{(RQ)^{\frac{1}{n}}}{R}$$

This equation holds as long as the phase angle does not deviate too far from -90° (n > 0.75). I won’t go into this further, though – the ConsultRSR webpages on EIS provide some useful reading on this point.

Next: Diffusional resistance >>

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