Instructables

DIY Solar USB Charger - Altoids

Picture of DIY Solar USB Charger - Altoids
finished2.jpg
I've been reading a bunch of blogs this fine Earth Day morning and have noticed that most of them are posting little write ups about green solar powered USB gadget chargers.  They're all quite nice, but also quite expensive.  I don't think I've seen any for less than $60, and I've not seen one that really suits my style.

Instructables has quite a few guides on how to make Solar USB Chargers, including the very well done guide on how to combine a Lady Ada Minty Boost circuit with a solar + lithium ion battery.  Great, but a bit expensive to make and not a very simple project for the weekend DIY person.

Well luckily for us I know how to make one for under $20 that is better in nearly every way and also completely fits into an Altoids Tin.  Covert style.

*** Update:  I've since retired this kit.  It's not held up over time very well.  I've done an updated version called Solar USB Kit 2.0 and a more rugged version called Lithium Heavy Duty 2.0.  If you're looking for something pre made, especially for camping or emergencies, you should try out one of our Folding USB Solar Cells.  They're inexpensive and much much more powerful than what you'll find here.
 
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Step 1: What You Need

Parts:
USB Charging Circuit
Solar Panel 4V or greater
AA Battery Holder
AA Rechargeable Batteries
1N914 Diode
Altoid Tin (or whatever)
Wire

Tools:
Soldering Iron
Solder
Tin Snips
Melt Glue Gun and Glue
Tape

Cost is less than $30.  I can make one for under $10 when I buy parts in bulk.  I have a kit available at my website BrownDogGadgets.com which has everything you need to make this project.  Also, if you're lazy, I do sell made versions in a variety of tin styles.

Quick question. I was able to salvage a DC to USB board from a car charger. I actually left the LED on the board for ease of checking if power was flowing or not. I can not seem to get it to light up unless my power source is 9v or greater. In your tutorial your using 2.4 volts of output to charge a device via batteries. I am running a 1watt 6volt panel and it wouldn't light it up either although I was only getting about 3.5 volts due to cloudy weather. Any thoughts?

Merahu25 days ago

The update above says that Joshua Zimmerman has retired this charger as unreliable. I have one, plus one without a USB port, produced by BrownDogGadgets, that I have been using to charge four AA batteries for my camera. Yesterday I picked up the tin with the USB port and the metal was hot at one end of the batteries, very hot. It was in the shade and cool surroundings, not in direct sun. I pulled one battery out and set it aside to cool so I could toss it in the garbage. Then I noticed (smell, not visual) acrid fumes. I was using ordinary rechargables, not lithium batteries. (Rayovac.) Since lithium batteries can burst into flames when exposed to high heat, I would be very cautious about using such products with lithium batteries. Given that mine developed a serious problem without lithium batteries, I will be cautious with any use. I am glad I was present when the problem was developing.

One possible contributing factor may be that I have regularly used this on the dash of my car. They have certainly had a chance to get overheated, and perhaps the wiring or components themselves are capable of melting under those conditions, though they were not in the sun at the time I picked them up and found the one hot. I am very pro solar and very pro do-it-yourself. There is some safety risk here, and I hope it will be further clarified in the future, and fixes presented for safe function in sometimes hot conditions.

Thank you to everyone who advances clean energy such as solar, and to those who improve safety as well.

kenkenken448 months ago
hi i had done everything ou said and even bought the equipment but my phone still cannot charge the red led light is on i am outside with batteries but it still wont work??

You're essentially charging two devices, the external backup battery and your phone, at the same time. This instructable explains what kind of charge controller and power is required to perform this task and give constant phone charge even under non-ideal conditions:http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Solarpad-Kit-...

Could you fit a triple AA battery holder in here?

brburrous made it!2 months ago

Cool looking and easy to make, but not to effective.

DSC_7905.JPG
jody344 months ago
Where did you get the USB charging circuit?
You can use a voltage regulator. I made a similar one (currently making the instructable). When charging a device via USB then the voltage will always be 5.0 volts. Check my page.
Hey there! This is an excellent looking project that I plan on completing soon! I do have one question: what is the best way to go about harvesting the usb charging circuit from a usb charger?

Thanks so much!
Rip that puppy open.

Find that that turns 2 or 3 AAs into 5V USB.

(Not a wall one. Bad idea.)
Can I use an AC to USB converter? I ripped apart a kindle charger cord; would this work?
Did you ever find out? I'm wondering the same thing, I have an MP4 charger cord
electro181 year ago
I bought a 5v solar panel and connected a diode to it....... and connected it to my phone. It was charging well so is there any need of the DC-USB converter?
Please forgive me, I am NOT trying to be a smart aleck....but to use only a solar panel would be like only eating bologna sandwiches. Your solar panel may not give 5V 100% of the time (e.g. cloudy day, shady area, etc). The IC on the DC-USB converter ensures you will always be pushing 5V. The other items help ensure the quality of the voltage is that of a prime rib. lol
Well, thanks ! but i am not able to find any sort of DC-USB converter ,so is there any way to make it ?
Could you show us how you connected it to your phone?
TheArtVark7 months ago
Hi,
If I understand correctly, if I leave the batteries in and place it in the sun it will use BOTH the solar panel out and the batteries ate the same time if I want to charge anything, right? No need to take out the batteries? When the it's less sunny the batteries drain faster, when it's scorching the batteries drain slower?

Thanks for the instructions!
The temperature of the air doesn't matter as much as you might think. The panel will output more mA when it is 60 degrees and sunny...compared to 110 degrees and mostly cloudy. But yes, leave the batteries in.
Ah, thanks for your answer. No hassle charging then, just stick it out in the sun. With 'warm' I actually meant 'sunny', but good to know that temperature is not an issue either :-)
No problem...but as another user mentioned I would add a small circuit to prevent overcharging the batteries.
Schmidty1610 months ago
I was wondering if I could use another usb connector if so can I fond 1 at RadioShack if so what is it called and if I can where can I find one in stuff ling around my house
This has a "USB Type A" for charging electronic devices, you shouldn't need anything else because it's the industry standard. To use anything else would be over-complicating things or risking damage to your equipment. Your best bet is to buy the kit: http://www.adafruit.com/products/14 and add a solar panel to it.
I don't have access to your store
xJValx9 months ago
is it somehow possible for the charger itself after it is complete, to pull juice out of the phone that its supposed to be charging?
nitewing76 xJValx7 months ago
There should be diodes in the device and on the USB-DC converter to prevent that from happening.
Snakera9 months ago
Do you know if this will charge the iphone 5?
The iPhone5 and iPad4 both require more wattage than their predecessors (that's why Apple changed the plug). I'm not exactly sure of the iPhone5 power requirements, but my iPad4 requires 12W of power (12W/5V=2.4A). Thus I cannot charge it in my vehicles, laptop/desktop computers (500mA max), etc. If the components of the USB-DC converter can handle it, then yes. But, you'd have to check the appropriate datasheets. I would send an e-mail to AdaFruit and ask her.
rsantos249 months ago
I have a 6 VSolar panel wired to 2 rechargeable batteries, and the battery wires and solar panel wires are soldered to the USB connector. The USB connector is lit up so there is some power going to it but the device is not charging.
One of the IC's could be bad or there could be a bad solder joint.
rweiss8 months ago
Hello,
I am wondering, if we're using some internal batteries (ie. AA in your case), that are wired directly to the solar cell, are they at risk of overcharging if the device is left in the sun?
Thanks for the great tutorial.
nitewing76 rweiss7 months ago
Electronics should never be "left out" in the sun long enough to overcharge the batteries and you should be able to find a solar panel that will fit in the tin. However..."stuff" happens! So I do plan to incorporate a protection circuit in mine.
cnephew8 months ago
When you say "You can rip one out of a cheap USB charger" what exactly do you mean by that?
Some wall warts and car chargers have a USB connection on them. I assume that is what he's referring to. I'm going to build my own USB-DC converter using AdaFruits Instructable. It calls for a 22uH inductor and I did find a 20uH inductor in a Motorola RAZR charger.
jayc1607 months ago
I tried making with with two recharchable 9v batteries and im not making any headway does it only work with the AA's ? Or do I need to add something in the line to make it work ? im also going to use a plastic pelican case instead of an altoids can just seems a little more rugged.
Pelican cases are awesome! If you are using 9V batteries you need to add a LM7805 circuit or you risk frying your electronics. But you will be wasting a lot of power and therefore, money. To know more, read AdaFruit's Instructable: http://www.instructables.com/id/MintyBoost!---Small-battery-powered-USB-charger/step2/The-Process-Come-up-with-an-idea/
Fashiondez1 year ago
Hey, does anyone know what to do when you hook everything up, and it is working/shows that the Iphone is plugged in, but it doesn't charge it? Should I cut all the wires and re attach them?
Ever solve this? Same problem.
gowtham778 months ago
If I rip out a USB Charging Circuit from a cheap charger would it work. I mean the transformer in the circuit is designed to reduce 230volts into 5 volts required for output. But when the input is just 6 volts would it work
henryd1068 months ago
Just how many devices at once could this support?
RallyDriver9 months ago
Is the USB constantly putting out charge? Because a switch would be needed to turn on and off the output, right?
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