Give Your Solar Garden Lights A Color Changing LED Upgrade

White LEDs were the technological breakthrough that changed the world of lighting, now they are everywhere. There’s no better sign of their cost-effective ubiquity than the dollar store solar garden light: a complete unit integrating a white LED with its solar cell and battery storage. Not content with boring white lights on the ground, [Emily] decided to switch up their colors with a mix of single-color LEDs and dynamic color-changing LEDs, then hung them up high as colorful solar ornaments.

The heart of these solar devices is a YX8018 chip (or one of its competitors.) While the sun is shining, solar power is directed to charge up the battery. Once the solar cell stops producing power, presumably because the sun has gone down, the chip starts acting as a boost converter (“Joule thief”) pushing a single cell battery voltage up high enough to drive its white LED. Changing that LED over to a single color LED is pretty straightforward, but a color changing LED adds a bit of challenge. The boost converter deliver power in pulses that are too fast for human eyes to pick up but the time between power pulses is long enough to cause a color-changing circuit to reset itself and never get beyond its boot-up color.

The hack to keep a color-changing LED’s cycle going is to add a capacitor to retain some charge between pulses, and a diode to prevent that charge from draining back into the rest of the circuit. A ping-pong ball serves as light diffuser, and the whole thing is hung up using a 3D-printed sheath which adds its own splash of color.

Solar garden lights are great basis for a cheap and easy introduction to electronics hacking. We’ve seen them turn into LED throwies, into a usable flashlight, or even to power an ATTiny microcontroller.

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Dollar Store Garden Lights As ATtiny Power Supplies

Solar garden lights are just another part of the great trash pile of our age, electronics so cheap as to be disposable. Most of you probably have a set lurking somewhere at home, their batteries maybe exhausted. Internally though they are surprisingly interesting devices. A solar cell, a little boost converter chip, and a little NiCd battery alongside the LED. These are components with potential, as [Randy Elwin] noted with a mind to his ATtiny85 projects.

The YX805A chip he references in his write-up is one of several similar chips that function in effect as joule thieves, extending the available charge in the battery to keep the LED active as long as possible when their solar panel is generating nothing, and turning it off in daylight when the panel can charge. Their problem is that they are designed as joule thieves rather than regulators, so using them as a microcontroller PSU without modification can result in overvoltage.

His solution is to use the device’s solar panel input as a feedback pin from his ATtiny, allowing the microcontroller to keep an eye on its supply voltage and enable or disable the converter as necessary while it keeps running from the reservoir capacitor. Meanwhile the solar panel now charges the NiCd cell through a single diode. It’s not perfect and maybe needs a clamp or something, he notes that there is a condition in which the supply can peak at 8 volts, a level which would kill an ATtiny. But still, we like simple hacks on dollar store parts, so it’s definitely worth further investigation.

This isn’t the first garden light hack we’ve shown you, there was this flashlight, and some LED hacks.

Solar light picture: Leon Brooks [Public domain].

Joule Thief Steals in Favor of Christmas

A lot of things tend to get stretched during the holiday season, like shopping budgets and waistbands and patience. This year, [Chris] is stretching the limits of both the mini breadboard and the humble 1.5 V LR44 coin cell with his joule thief-driven LED mini Christmas tree.

With the push of a micro momentary, the joule thief circuit squeezes enough power from an LR44 to boot an MSP430 microcontroller, which needs 1.8 V – 3.6 V. After boot, the micro takes control of the joule thief circuit and milks it whenever the voltage falls below 3.2 V. This tree may be small in stature, but it’s feature-rich. A push of the same momentary button cycles through four different light shows, ending with a medley of all four. Be dazzled after the break.

The code for this tiny tree, which features an awesome ASCII breadboard layout and schematic, is up on GitHub. [Chris] has it listed among a few other manageable bare-metal ‘430 projects that would be great for beginners at pure C. If that sounds like you, why not give yourself the gift of learning a new language?

We’ve seen some spirited ways of lighting LEDs, but doing it with candle power takes the fruitcake.

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Joule Thief Steals Power for a Clock

A common project among electronics tinkerers is the joule thief, a self-oscillating circuit that can “steal” the remaining energy in a battery after the voltage has dropped so low that most devices would stop working. Typically the circuit powers an LED until almost all of the energy is extracted from the battery, but [Lionel Sears] has created a specialized joule theif that uses the “extra” energy to power a clock.

The circuit uses four coils instead of the usual two to extract energy from the battery. The circuit charges a large capacitor which provides the higher current pulses needed to drive the clock’s mechanism. It can power the clock from a single AA battery, and will run until the voltage on the battery is only 0.5 volts.

Normally the clock would stop running well before the voltage drops this low, despite the fact that there’s still a little chemical energy left in the batteries. The circuit can drive the clock for an extended time with a new battery, or could use old “dead” batteries to run the clock for a brief time while the final little bit of energy is drawn from them. If you’re so inclined, you could even use hot and cold water with a joule thief to run your clock! Thanks to [Steven] for the tip.

Peltier Joule Thief Power Supply

[Steven] manages to power an LED for 15 minutes using hot and cold water as a battery. He does this using the thermoelectric effect also known as the Seebeck effect, Peltier effect or Thomson effect. This isn’t particularly new; in fact there are commercial products that you can use to charge a cell phone using a small campfire or internal burner that works on the same principle.

What is interesting about [Steven’s] device is that he uses a salvaged Peltier device not meant for generating electricity, coupled with a home built joule thief circuit. In the video he describes how the joule thief functions and powers the LED using the small voltage generated by the Peltier device. The energy for the thermoelectric effect is conducted from a hot water bath through aluminum plates, through the positive and negative sides of the Peltier device, through more aluminum plates and finally into a cold water bath. As the heat energy transfers through the Peltier device a small electric current is generated and flows in two small wires coming out the side of the device.  The energy generated by the Peltier device is stored in the joule thief and periodically dumped at a voltage high enough to forward bias the LED “on” for a brief moment. Technically the LED is flashing but at a frequency too high for our eyes to see. As the hot water bath cools, the LED goes from very bright, to dim, to off in about 15 minutes.

Not a very practical power supply but still quite the parlor trick. He wraps up the tutorial specifying that a TEG thermoelectric generator would be a much better choice for generating power and can handle much higher temperatures. You can watch the video after the break.

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Fluorescent light, powered by battery


If you’re going camping this summer, or just want a cheap emergency lantern powered by a pair of AA batteries, you probably can’t do much better than [rimstar]’s Joule thief compact florescent lantern.

The circuit for [rimstar]’s battery powered CFL bulb is a Joule thief. While these circuits are usually used as a demonstration to get every last bit of energy out of a battery with a LED, [rimstar] upgraded everything with a better transformer and a power transistor to light up a CFL bulb.

What’s really interesting about this build is it provides a use for blown compact fluorescent bulbs. The normal failure mode of these light bulbs is usually the electronics going bad, not the tube. By replacing the electronics with a homemade circuit, it’s an easy way to reuse these broken bulbs.

Video below.

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Doubling up on the USB supercap flashlight

[Antoine] wrote in to let us know that he soldiers on with his flashlight project. He’s doubled up on the supercaps and tripled the LEDs (translated).

The core concept has stayed the same since the original version. He wanted a flashlight that was small and used no batteries. This iteration came about as he looked at increasing the light output of the device. He’s switched to some warm-white LEDs which are easier on the eyes, but was unhappy with the charge life now that he’s using current at a faster rate. The solution, of course, is more potential from the capacitor. He’s now using two 10 Farad caps in parallel. We are a little skeptical about his capacitor theory and ended up using this lecture to defog the issue of parallel and series capacitance.

The upgraded hardware is right at home in that plastic egg like you’d find in a coin-op trinket vending machine. You’ll see there’s still a colored LED to warn when the charge is getting too low.