Introduction: Battery Free, USB Powered LED Torch

Picture of Battery Free, USB Powered LED Torch


A rechargeable, battery-free LED torch which gets it's power from USB and stores it in a capacitor.


I reckon USB stuff is cool. I also reckon LED stuff is cool. I HATE paying for batteries. I love my shaky torch. Putting all this together, I thought I'd make a LED torch, simmilar in form to those keychain types, which stores it's power in a capacitor. The capacitor is charged from the USB port.


This is only a "proof of concept", and is intended to show it works. I doubt it will have the best performace, but that's not the point. I think I should be able to do it fairly cheaply, for about the cost of a keychain coin-cell LED light.

Step 1: Gather Parts

Picture of Gather Parts

Here are the parts I used. The link directs to the product page where I purchased them to give you an idea if you are unsure what you are looking for (or to see how much/if I got ripped off). All prices in AU$ at time of posting.

Obviously substitute parts and suppliers where applicable for your location. I think you can get pretty much everything here from SparkFun, but I listed Altronics as they are a good source for parts in Australia.

- 1 x 5.5V 1F Supercap - Altronics - $4.25
- 1 x 5mm Blue High Intensity LED - LSDiodes $0.75ish depending on exchange rate
- 1 x 18 Ohm resistor - DSE - $0.04
- 1 x mini push button toggle switch - SparkFun - $0.30ish
- 1 x Verobaord, 310mm x 95mm, 0.1" spacing - DSE - $7.99 - OK I didn't actually buy this, I used leftover scraps, but this is what you'd buy. You only need a small bit, so I'll count 1/10th of the price (even that's way too much)

So total is AU$6.13. Definately acheived goal.

Yes the capacitor looks like a coin-cell battery. Trust me, I'm not trying to cheat, that's what it looks like.

Step 2: Resistor Sizing

Picture of Resistor Sizing

Last step I called out an 18 Ohm resistor - why 18 Ohm?

The product page gives the following MAXIMUM specs for the LED. You could use the NOMINAL specs, but hey, I live on the edge. The effect of using the maximum values will be to increase brightness at the expense of life. AS the life is quoted at 100,000 hours, even a 50% decrease would still be 5.7 years continuous use - I'll take that deal.

Vmax = 4.5 V
Imax = 30 mA (=30/1000 = 0.03A)

The capacitor can supply 5.5V, but since we will be feeding it from a USB port the voltage should only reach 5.0V.

The purpose of a resistor in series with an LED is to limit current, preventing thermal runaway. Thermal runaway occurs when an LED draws too much current, therefore heating up a little, which in turn causes a little bit more current to be drawn, which causes an increase in temperature in a viscous cycle.

So to determine the size of the resistor, we use Ohm's Law, where:

I = current
R = resistance
V = voltage

V= I x R

This can be arranged for each of the terms, here we want to know the resistor required for the maximum voltage and current.

R = V / I

The 'left over' voltage after the LED has taken it's 4.5V need to be paired with a 30mA current (this is how I think of it anyways - other people teach/learn it different ways).

(5.0 - 4.5)
R = ------------

= 16.66666666666...6

(Instructables won't let me format that properly - hopefully you get the idea, (5.0-4.5) is the nominator, 0.030 the denominator)

Resistor come in standard values... rounded UP (I'm turning soft!) the next standard values is... you guessed it... 18 Ohm.

Of course you could have just used a calculator like the one here

The colour code for an 18 Ohm resistor is brown-grey-black

Step 3: Concept Sketch

Picture of Concept Sketch

Here's my concept sketch, done one boring work day.

The capacitor is charged by putting it in across the power source, in this case the USB port. The capacitor stores the charge, acting as a low capacity battery.

The capacitor is then used as the power source for the LED. When it discharges, the LED lights.

Step 4: Circuit Diagram

Picture of Circuit Diagram

Heres the Eagle file... pretty damn compicated hey... (actual .sch attached)

Step 5: Layout Sketch

Picture of Layout Sketch

So I've claimed that this would be USB powered - but where's a USB connector? While looking around for a male type A PCB connector, I thought it'd be pretty cool to copy those "integrated plug" connector used on mini SD type cards.

I looked up the USB specification here, which is a fairly boring document. The specification though shows that the contacts on a male connector are 1mm wide, with about 2.5mm between them, and the carrier is 2mm thick. Hmmm... pretty much the same dimensions as the strips on the veroboard. Awesome.

Doing a quick test showed that but cutting a section of four strips, and inserting it into a USB port, I got 5V on the two out rails. Bam.

I'm not a massive fan of veroboard, because I think you have to spend too much timecutting traces and installing jumpers. I prefer to use matrix board where each pad is isolated, but the USB-compatability is too convienient here.

Using the schematic I layed out the components on a peice of board. Because the bottom terminal of the capacitor is exposed, I'm putting some of the jumpers on the underside.

Here is my combined layout/circuit board sketch. Dotted components on other side. I tried various vero/stripboard CAD software, but nothing worked the way I liked. Any suggestions - let me know in the comments.

Step 6: Performance Calculations

Picture of Performance Calculations

At this stage lets look at how we'd expect the torch to perform. Performance wasn't part of my goals, so this is for interests sake only. Of course if the performance of the torch were critical, these calc's would have been done as a first step to determine the feasability of the project, and the component values.

My discalimer: I'm a scructural, not electrical engineer, so I may have made multiple mistakes here. Please let me know if I did!

The energy stored in a charged capacitor is given by

E = 0.5 x C x V2

where C is the capacitance and V is the voltage


E = 0.5 x 1 x 52
= 12.5 joule

1 joule is one watt of power for one second.
We've got 12.5 joules to play with, that would get us 1 watt for 12.5 seconds

Ignoring the internal resistance of the capacitor (not insignificant, in reality will affect the result), the LED/resistor is consuming power

P = V x I
= 5.0 x 0.03
= 0.15 watt

Therefore 12.5 joule will power 0.15 watt for 12.5/0.15 = 83.3333333 seconds.

Hmmm... not exactly inspiring stuff, and will get worse when you included the capacitor internal resistance... but OK to muck around with. Of course the LED will continue to give off light as the voltage fades, gaining a bit of time, but it won't be as bright. On the plus side, recharges are (virtually) free and quick.

AHA! But how quick?

The charging profile of a capacitor is generally calculated in terms of a "time constant". The capacitor will increase in charge by 63.8% every time constant. The attached images shows the cycles and came from here

eg. Assuming starting at zero, after one time constant, charge will be 63.8% of max, after two will be 63.2% + 63.2% of remaining 36.8% = 86.5% and so on, 3 time constants = 95%, 4 = 98%, 5 = 99+%.

the time constant is given by

s = R x C

Here the internal resistance of the capacitor is 30 ohms.

s = 30 x 1 = 30 seconds

So it will take 2.5 minutes or so to be pretty much fully charged... and for an 83.3 second use time thats a 35% duty cycle...

Step 7: Assembling It

Picture of Assembling It

Soldering all the components... not much to say. None of the components are particularly heat sensitive... maybe the LED. Bend the LED 90 degrees so it sits against the board pointing forward.

I ended up putting the link from the LED to the negative terminal of the capacitor on the top side, rather than the bottom as I had on the sketch in step 5.

Step 8: Finished!

Picture of Finished!

Insert into USB port. Wait 2 or so minutes. Remove and push button to use!

It's never going to photograph great, but as you can see it throws off a useful light. In comparison to my brand-name keychain light I'd say it gives maybe 50% of the spread, but greater brightness in the centre of the beam. Maybe using a wide-angle LED would be a good idea.

Endurance wise: I left it to charge for a long time, then quickly removed it and timed how long it ran for. Of course there is no 'cut off', it just gets dimmer, but it definately retains a useful amount of brightness for well over 2 minutes.

TO DO: A custom housing. I'm thinking clear expoxy or silicon. Epoxy I would need to relocate/raise the button, silicon I'd need to look at how much it would gum it up.

In conclusion, a fun project with a pretty cool result.


nkrishna3 (author)2014-12-25

this is very nice.... can we add a 1 watt led instead of 5 mm led??

Articas (author)2010-03-20

wtf the picture has a battery

Robert Powell (author)Articas2014-09-27

it's not a battery, its a flat super capacitor, you can get super capacitors even thinner if you look hard enough!

trialex (author)Articas2010-03-21

wtf I don't think you read the description

KT Gadget (author)Articas2010-03-20

 Look at the parts list, that "battery" is a capacitor.

RtyQ (author)2014-01-14

nice, i will just add some (a rondom lot) of capacitors in paralel to it and see where it gets me using a lm regulator and a dvd drive laser :D btw thanks for al the calculations and stuff, realy helped me out with another projectof mine

XOIIO (author)2012-03-22

Here's a tip, digikey has them for a shitload cheaper, I ordered 18 for 57 bucks, from altronics it's 69.30

trialex (author)XOIIO2012-03-23

Ah yes, but things have changed in the last 5 AND A HALF YEARS since I posted this instructable! (Wow, I feel old...) . In general, super capacitor prices have come down, but this altronics are still charging about the same for the 1F version. It doesn't surprise me that digikey has them cheaper - in general component prices in the US are cheaper than in Australia.

Altronics now has a 220F (yep, 220 times larger!) for $23.

eelco_g (author)2008-03-21

This is my first comment, but I think I should warn you guys about this: You CAN use more capacitor in parallel to increase the charge but that also means you'll be putting the internal resistance of the caps in parallel. Meaning you'll draw more current out of your USB port. To be safe, put a resistor between the positive lead and the capacitor to limit the charging current to about 100mA. Charging will take longer, but thats a minor inconvenience compared to frying your mother board.

a480641 (author)eelco_g2012-02-09

might be a good idea to keep it around 400 mA just to be safe.
would also be cool if someone made one with a potentiometer to change the brightness or to select b/tw using 1-5 leds

Taran606 (author)2010-08-19

What resistor would I use if I used a 25v resistor with 100 nf or uf

trialex (author)Taran6062010-08-19

Sorry mate but your question doesn't make sense. Can you try re-phrasing it? Resistors aren't (typically) rated for a "voltage" - normally they have a resistance (like 100 ohms) and a power rating (eg 1/4 watt).

Taran606 (author)trialex2010-08-19

I meant to say capacitor not resistor I'm using a 25v cap with 100 uf or nf

lasermaster3531 (author)Taran6062011-02-06

that cap wont work for more than a second. uF is Micro-Farads or millionths of a Farad. you need a one-Farad supercapacitor. you won't find one of those in a radio shack any time soon, I'm pretty sure. you could also use a bigger cap like 5-15 Farads for longer-lasting light.

reywolf (author)2010-04-17

what do the other two usb wires do? i just need to know which wire does what, i already know what to use it for. I'm too lazy to test.

trialex (author)reywolf2010-04-17

Ah but it takes so little effort to google!

The middle two pins of the usb A connector are for D+ and D-.

Wesley666 (author)2009-05-24

ha this is great but mine is better. I bought 100 polyacene batteries off electronics goldmine. They are rechargeable, half the size of the capacitor in this instructable, they will each, when charged, power an LED for an hour, and they take no time at all to charge. They are rated for 3.3v only so a few other components have to be added, but they work really well!

NoHighResGames (author)Wesley6662010-03-25

That's not better, that's completely different. Did you read the description? This wasn't supposed to be an effective model. It's a proof of concept.

Wesley666 (author)NoHighResGames2010-03-26

Ya, but you can make it an effective model...

Wesley666 (author)NoHighResGames2010-03-25

Yes, I get that, just pointing out that Polyacene batteries last longer, about an hour on one charge. 

However, just follow me on this thought, if you mixed this Instructable, with Polyacene Batteries, with this Instructable:

You would have one wicked flashlight! 

NoHighResGames (author)2010-03-25

Thanks for this proof of concept. I was just reading up on resistors and wondered if this were possible.

XOIIO (author)2010-03-21

Where did you get a capacitor like that? it really looks like  battery.

trialex (author)XOIIO2010-03-21

Did you check out step 1? It's got a link to Altronics, which is where I got mine from.

Sunil-VU3SUA (author)2010-01-10

The idea and concept is great. This design can be made in many ways. With a larger Capacitor and a different charging point, not necessary USB charging.Some add-on would further improve the design.
Like Charging Indicator.
The Power level left in Capacitor , as when being used .
The concept of not using batteries justifies the project.
Thanks for this wonderful project.

mitpatterson (author)2010-01-05

Another idea would be to put a smaller, lower power led to indicate "charging" or you  could just use the smae one, but then taht might slow the charging, hence why i suggested using slower post one. and you could probaly just put the additional LED in parrelle to the capacitor with a small resistor too.

Gamernotnerd (author)2009-08-04

Does anyone have that LED array calculator? I am making a similar project.

I found it, but this is a great project, good job!

lemminggenocide (author)2008-10-25

usb i need to say anything else?

raykholo (author)lemminggenocide2009-03-19

u mean like the AA and AAA batteries recharged from a usb port? huge!

they take ages to charge..............

davidprosser (author)2008-12-16

by the way, you can only draw 500ma from a USB port if you use extra circuittry that "asks" for 500ma, not 100ma. Anyway I think if you try and use too much, you'll get a popup on your screen saying "USB is taking too much current" or something. I had that message once - nothing happened, i just unplugged a homemade usb device!

trialex (author)davidprosser2008-12-16

True in theory you need to properly ask for the full 500mA, but a lot of USB ports will supply 500mA from the get-go.

davidprosser (author)trialex2008-12-17

what determines which usb ports will?

raykholo (author)davidprosser2009-03-19

think it depends on the age of the computer as theyre built to accomodate newer devices... but i really dont know and thats just a guess

DYLEGO (author)trialex2009-01-11

Hey Trialex, I was wondering how exactly you wire a four-lead tact switch, as in what does each lead do? Where is the NO and C?

raykholo (author)DYLEGO2009-02-26

real easy -- the 2 next to each other are already wired together, on both sides... if u only need 2 contacts, just use any 2 diagonal from each other

trialex (author)raykholo2009-02-26

rak - nice; good rule of thumb.

raykholo (author)trialex2009-02-26

thanks -- thats the easiest way to remember it

computerwiz_222 (author)2008-01-28

How about adding a joule thief to the circuit this would allow you to run the LED longer off of the CAP

raykholo (author)computerwiz_2222009-01-10

the way i see it, the joule theif steps up the voltage from a "dead" battery -- by taking aout lots of electricity at once here, we would want to step down the voltage, which would be the exact opposite of the joule thief-- ideally replacing the resistor and making its output the 3 volts needed to run the led. thats how to conserve the power, and i think it involves a transformer any ideas on how ?

WowThanks for the tip I was actually thinking about that when you brung it up!!!

that is a brilliant idea. I might make one like that

geeklord (author)2008-10-31

Sorry I need a place to post this, What would a circuit for making things blink look like? Other than a 555timer.......

raykholo (author)geeklord2009-01-10

if size wasnt a problem, which it is --- but u could use a thermal cutoff switch to make the led flash, and there are circuits where u can wire up a relay switch to make it workout to make it work with the tiny size, i would just recommend a blinking led, which can be found in many places

clark (author)geeklord2008-11-14

well if your looking to make an led blink, then i'm pretty sure radioshack has blinking leds

raykholo (author)2009-01-09

should anything bad happen if u push the switch while its plugged in?

WingDings (author)2008-12-08

This is a nice introduction to the use of capacitors and LEDs, which, as you say, are cool! Nice that you included the calculations, too, and backed them up with a test at the end. All very good. By the way, did you mean a vicious circle, rather than a viscous cycle (sticky!)? :P

drk (author)2008-09-08

Amazing Instructable! Very clear and easy to understand... I just began trying to learn about electronic components, and well this has made it just that much simpler! I have something i want to clear up; I am planing on building something with a solar cell, and a capacitor, how does the uf rating and the voltage relate? I know the uF rating is how much Energy the capacitor can hold, and the volatege is the rate at which that energy can flow, correct ? what about the amps' are those controlled through resistors ? alternate question; eg; how does a 1000uF 50V capacitor differ from a 1000uF 40V capcitor and a 1000uF 50v from a 2000uf 50v ? Any Help is much appriciated..... how would i choose one to power a small dc motor, that runs on a 1.5 v battery.... ?

raykholo (author)drk2008-11-23

what does uF mean?

drk (author)raykholo2008-11-23

it mean microFarad, its a measurement.... this article will provide some insight....

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