One of the commonest causes of failure of electronic products brought into Repair Cafés is a failed electrolytic capacitor. Electronics has a bad reputation for being short-lived, and this is evidently a major part of the reason.
Aluminium electrolytic capacitors are common and inexpensive electronic components. Every switched-mode power supply has several, and the average hi-tech product contains dozens. They are an indispensable part of electronic design.
Are electronics manufacturers knowingly producing products that have a short product lifetime? It is very hard to argue otherwise.
The lifetime of an aluminium electrolytic capacitor is variously quoted at 1000, 2000 or 3000 hours of operation – that’s not very long!! (3000 hours is only 4 months!) The reality is usually significantly in excess of this, but nevertheless it is one of the commonest causes of electronic product failure.
The problem is that there are few alternatives. Tantalum capacitors were heralded as the answer some years ago, but tantalum is produced from the mineral coltan, which is largely found in central Africa. Mining of coltan is associated with exploitation of local populations by large mining conglomerates, and it is rare and expensive. A tantalum capacitor costs roughly sixty times the cost of an equivalent aluminium capacitor – so they are only used where space is at a severe premium.
Unfortunately, for small electrolytic capacitors there seems to be little research happening to find better alternatives. This is in noted contrast to the research happening around the world into utility-grade energy storage in large supercapacitors.
I think it would be helpful for Restart Parties, Repair Cafés and other environmentally-concerned groups to highlight this issue, and lobby for research into inexpensive but longer-lasting alternatives.
Chris Moller, C.Eng, MIET, 11May2020.
Aluminium Electrolytic Capacitor - https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/aluminium-electrolytic-capacitor
What is expected life of Electrolytic capacitor? - https://en.cosel.co.jp/technical/qanda/a0026.html
Research on failure prediction method of electrolytic capacitor used in power conversion circuit - http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTotal-DZIY201001008.htm
Coltan - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan