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Paper Circuits: Make Electrifying Art

Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This project requires special circuit materials. See the Materials and Equipment list for details. Estimated project time includes time for shipping specialty materials.
Cost Average ($40 - $80)
Safety No issues

Abstract

"Paper circuits" are a fun way to mix electronics and art by adding lights directly to a painting or drawing. These lights need a battery to power them, and typically you would use wires to connect them. In paper circuits, though, many materials can be substituted as "wire," including special types of paint, ink, and even aluminum foil. There are also different options for what type of battery you can use. Which materials do you think will work best? Try this project to find out!

Objective

Discover what type of battery and "wire" material will work best to set up lights in a paper circuit.

Credits

Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
  • Scotch® is a registered trademark of 3M.

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "Paper Circuits: Make Electrifying Art" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 28 July 2017. Web. 21 Nov. 2017 <https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Elec_p085/electricity-electronics/paper-circuits>

APA Style

Finio, B. (2017, July 28). Paper Circuits: Make Electrifying Art. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Elec_p085/electricity-electronics/paper-circuits

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Last edit date: 2017-07-28

Introduction

Have you ever made a painting or drawing that included lights, like light from the sun, or from the windows of a house at night? Do you think it would be fun if those light sources could actually light up? That is what paper circuits allow you to do—build real lights directly into your drawings or paintings, like the one in Figure 1.

paper circuit LED flowers
Figure 1. An example of a paper circuit that includes real lights in the centers of the flowers.

An electrical circuit is a loop where electricity can flow. A basic circuit requires a battery, which stores electricity (other types of circuits can get electricity from other places, like a wall outlet). The battery must be connected to a light with materials that let electricity flow easily (kind of like water flowing easily through a pipe). These materials are called conductors (materials that do not let electricity flow easily are called insulators). Figure 2 shows a diagram of a basic circuit.

A diagram of a basic circuit.
Figure 2. A diagram of a basic circuit. Electricity is supplied by the battery. It flows in a loop through the conductor (which, in this figure, is a wire), to the light, and then back to the battery.

Conductors for most circuits (like the wires for the lights in your house, or inside a computer) are made out of copper wire, because copper is a very good conductor. However, there are many different options for conductive materials in paper circuits, as shown in Figure 3.

Conductors used in paper circuits
Figure 3. The conductive materials you might test in this project. From top to bottom: artist's graphite pencil, #2 pencil, conductive ink, electric paint, copper tape, and aluminum foil.

There are also different types of batteries, as shown in Figure 4. You might be familiar with AA or AAA batteries, commonly used in toys and electronic devices. Coin cell batteries—the type found in watches—are tiny, flat, and lightweight. 9 volt batteries are bigger and heavier, but have a higher voltage, which is how hard the battery "pushes" on the electricity (the coin cell batteries in this project are only 3 volts [V]). A higher voltage can "push" electricity through a less conductive material, whereas a low voltage requires a very conductive material in order to push a lot of electricity through.

9 volt and coin cell battery
Figure 4. A 9 V battery (left) and a coin cell battery (right).

In this project, you will test each of the conductive materials shown in Figure 3 with the batteries in Figure 4, to light up a tiny light called an LED (which stands for light-emitting diode). Which materials do you think will work with which battery? What combination do you think will be the "best" overall for an art project? Read the Questions and Bibliography sections to get started making your hypothesis.

Terms and Concepts

  • Circuit
  • Conductor
  • Insulator
  • Battery
  • Coin cell battery
  • 9 volt (V) battery
  • Voltage
  • Light-emitting diode (LED)

Questions

  • What are some different materials that can be used as conductors in paper circuits?
  • What are some examples of paper circuit projects? Hint: Do an internet search for "paper circuit" and look at some of the projects that come up.
  • Look closely at the example paper circuit projects you find.
    • What type of conductive material do they use?
    • What type of battery do they use?
  • Do a search to see what types of materials usually make "good" conductors, and what types are poor conductors.

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

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Materials and Equipment

The following materials are available from SparkFun Electronics:

  • 5 mm copper tape, SparkFun Electronics part # PRT-10561
  • Electric paint pen, SparkFun Electronics part # COM-11521
  • Conductive ink pen, SparkFun Electronics part # COM-13254
  • 9 volt battery, SparkFun Electronics part # PRT-10218
  • 2032 coin cell battery, SparkFun Electronics part # PRT-00338
  • Alligator clip test leads, SparkFun Electronics part # PRT-12978
    • Note: These are sold as a 10-pack, but you only need 2 for this project.
  • Pack of assorted LEDs, SparkFun Electronics part # COM-12062
    • Note: You only need a few LEDs for this project, but you can use additional ones for your artwork.

The following materials are available from home or an art supply store:

  • Artist's graphite pencil(s) and/or #2 pencils, available from Amazon.com or an art supply store.
    • Note: Pencils are labeled with letters and numbers that indicate a hardness scale. For example, #2 pencils might also have the letters "HB" on them. The pack of graphite pencils listed above contains 2B, 4B, and 6B pencils. To learn more about the pencil hardness scale, see http://www.thedrawingsource.com/drawing-pencils.html. If you buy multiple pencils with different hardness ratings, you can test all of them.
  • Aluminum foil
  • Printer paper or construction paper (at least 6 sheets)
  • Scotch® tape
  • Metric ruler
  • Scissors
  • Thin paintbrush
  • Drawing or painting materials of your choice (markers, colored pencils, crayons, etcetera)
  • Newspaper to protect your work surface
  • Lab notebook

Disclaimer: Science Buddies occasionally provides information (such as part numbers, supplier names, and supplier weblinks) to assist our users in locating specialty items for individual projects. The information is provided solely as a convenience to our users. We do our best to make sure that part numbers and descriptions are accurate when first listed. However, since part numbers do change as items are obsoleted or improved, please send us an email if you run across any parts that are no longer available. We also do our best to make sure that any listed supplier provides prompt, courteous service. Science Buddies does participate in affiliate programs with Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science fair projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

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Experimental Procedure

Learning How to Make a Paper Circuit with a Coin Cell Battery

Before you start your experiment, you will learn how to make a basic paper circuit by following these steps.

  1. Place the coin cell battery near the corner of a sheet of paper. Trace a circle around the battery. Then, holding the battery and paper together, fold the corner of the paper and the battery over, and release the battery onto the large area of blank paper. Now, trace a circle around the battery in its new location, as shown in Figure 5.
coin cell in paper circuit step 1
Figure 5. Trace two circles around a coin cell battery, one on each side of a fold line near a corner of the paper. The circle on the left should be drawn first, then the paper and battery folded over so the battery is in its new position for tracing the second circle, as shown here.
  1. Draw a 100 mm line, parallel to the edge of the paper, from the center of the bottom circle, as shown in Figure 6. Draw a second line from the center of the top circle, parallel to and ending where the first line does (this line will be slightly longer than 100 mm).
Paper circuit layout
Figure 6. Draw a 100 mm line from the center of the bottom circle and a parallel line from the center of the top circle.
  1. Lay a strip of copper tape over each of the lines, as shown in Figure 7.
Paper circuit copper tape
Figure 7. Cover both lines with strips of copper tape.
  1. Pick either a red, green, or yellow (not blue) LED. You will use this color for all of your trials. Spread the legs of the LED outward slightly, then bend them both sideways, as shown in the left part of Figure 8. Use Scotch tape to tape the legs of the LED down to the copper tape.
    1. Note: LEDs have two legs, called leads (pronounced "leeds"). One of them is longer than the other. The longer leg is the positive (+) side of the LED, and the shorter one is the negative (-) side of the LED. The longer lead should be closer to the edge of the paper, as shown in Figure 8 (this will connect to the positive side of the battery in a later step).
    Technical Note

    Red, green, and yellow LEDs only require about 2.4 V to light up, so they can be powered by the 3 V coin cell battery. Blue LEDs require 3.4 V, so they will not light up at full brightness (or not light up at all) when using a 3 V coin cell battery.

  2. Place the coin cell battery on the traced circle on the bottom strip of copper tape, with its positive (+) side facing up, as shown in the right part of Figure 8.
Paper circuit LED  Paper circuit coin cell battery
Figure 8. (Left) Gently spread and bend the leads of the LED 90 degrees and tape each lead to the copper tape, as shown. (Right) Place the coin cell battery on the traced circle on the bottom strip of copper tape, with the positive (+) side facing up.
  1. Your circuit should now look like the one in the left part Figure 9. Double-check to make sure you have everything connected, as shown in Figure 9.
  2. Fold the corner of the paper over and press down on the coin cell battery, as shown in the right side of Figure 9. Your LED should light up; you have just made your first paper circuit! Now you are ready to move on and conduct your experiment. If your LED does not light up:
    1. Try pressing down firmly on the leads of the LED, to make sure they are in contact with the copper tape.
    2. Try flipping the battery around (reversing the positive and negative connections), just in case you hooked up the LED backwards.
Paper circuit with coin cell battery and LED  Paper circuit with coin cell battery and LED
Figure 9. Fold the corner of the paper over and press down on top of the battery to make the LED light up.

Testing Different Conductive Materials with a Coin Cell Battery

  1. First you will test each material with the 3 V coin cell battery. Use your lab notebook to create a table, like Table 1, in which to record your results.
Coin Cell Battery Data
Material Trial 1 Trial 2 Trial 3 Total
Copper tape     
Aluminum foil     
Electric paint     
Conductive ink     
6B graphite pencil     
HB #2 pencil     
Table 1. Table in which to record whether or not the LED lights up when using the coin cell battery (you may need to fill in different letters/numbers, depending on what types of pencils you use).
  1. Test the copper tape with the coin cell battery, using the circuit you made in the previous section, Learning How to Make a Paper Circuit with a Coin Cell Battery.
    1. Use a pencil or pen to label the circuit "Trial 1" on the piece of paper.
    2. In Table 1, write "yes" or "no" in the column for Trial 1 for the copper tape, depending on whether or not the LED lights up.
    3. Important: Before you record that the LED does not light up, do some quick troubleshooting to make sure you did not make an error when connecting your circuit.
      1. Try pressing down firmly on the leads of the LED to make sure they are in contact with the copper tape.
      2. Try flipping the battery around (reversing the positive and negative connections), just in case you hooked up the LED backwards.
      3. If you try both of these things and the LED still does not light up, then record "no" in the appropriate place in Table 1.
    4. Write down any additional observations you make about lighting up the LED. For example, does the LED seem very bright or very dim? Did you have to press down extra hard to get it to light up?
  2. Repeat step 2 two more times with the copper tape.
    1. Each time, use a new corner of the same piece of paper, so all your copper tape trials are on the same piece of paper.
    2. Label each new circuit "Trial 2" and "Trial 3," respectively.
    3. You can reuse the same battery and LED. If your tape starts to lose its stickiness, use a new piece of tape.
    4. Remember to fill in the appropriate column in Table 1.
  3. Repeat steps 2–3 for each of your other conductive materials.
    Important: Here are some notes to follow when testing the other materials:
    1. Use a new piece of paper for each new material, and one corner of the paper for each of the three trials. Remember to label each circuit "Trial 1," "Trial 2," or "Trial 3," respectively.
    2. You can continue to reuse the same battery and LED. Use new pieces of tape as needed.
    3. Use a ruler to make sure your strips of material are 5 mm wide, matching the width of the copper tape.
    4. Use scissors to cut a strip of aluminum foil. Use Scotch® tape to stick the aluminum foil to the paper, but make sure you leave exposed sections of aluminum foil (meaning not covered in tape) at the ends so you can connect the battery and LED (this is necessary because Scotch tape is an insulator).
    5. Be sure to use newspaper to protect your work surface, especially when painting.
    6. For the electric paint, use a thin paintbrush to paint a 5 mm wide, thin, even layer on the pencil lines. Wait at least 15 minutes for the electric paint to dry before testing. If the paint is still not dry to the touch after 15 minutes, wait until it is completely dry.
    7. For the conductive ink, make sure to completely fill in a 5 mm wide strip; do not leave any white spots on the paper.
    8. For the pencils, make sure you fill in 5 mm strips darkly by pressing down hard, and drawing back and forth over the same area multiple times.
    9. Remember to fill in the correct row of Table 1 for each trial.
  4. Fill in the last column of Table 1 with the total number of times you could get the LED to light up for each material. For example, if you wrote "yes, yes, no" for three trials, you would write "2" in the "Total" column.

Learning How to Make a Paper Circuit with a 9 V Battery

The procedure to use a 9 V battery is slightly different than using a coin cell battery. Follow these steps to learn how to use a 9 V battery.

  1. Lay down newspaper to protect your work surface, then paint two parallel strips of electric paint—each 100 mm long by 5 mm wide—about 15 mm apart, starting from the edge of a piece of paper, as shown in the left side of Figure 10.
    1. Make sure you paint thin, even layers. Squeeze a little bit of paint out of the tube, then use a paintbrush to spread it.
  2. Wait 15 minutes for the paint to dry.
  3. Bend the legs of an LED and tape them to the paint, as shown on the right side of Figure 10.
    1. With the edge of the paper from which your two painted lines began facing you, attach the longer (positive) lead of the LED to the left strip of paint with Scotch tape.
    2. Now attach the shorter (negative) lead of the LED to the right strip of paint with Scotch tape.
    3. Note: When you are done with your trials and want to do a more permanent project with the electric paint, you can paint over the legs of the LED to stick them to the paper, instead of using tape.
paper circuit conductive paint  paper circuit LED
Figure 10. Paint two strips of electric paint and tape down an LED.
  1. Clip the alligator clip leads onto the terminals of the 9 V battery, as shown in the left part of Figure 11.
    1. Attach the red lead to the positive (+) terminal of the battery.
    2. Attach the black lead to the negative (-) terminal of the battery.
    3. Note: If you bought alligator clip leads from SparkFun, they come in a 10-pack with multiple colors. In electronics, red is typically used to represent positive, and black is typically used to represent negative. However, if you do not have red and black alligator clip leads available, you can use any color.
  2. Attach the other ends of the alligator clip leads to the strips of electric paint, as shown in the right part of Figure 11.
    1. Attach the red alligator clip (positive) to the left strip of electric paint.
    2. Attach the black alligator clip (negative) to the right strip of electric paint.
paper circuit 9V battery  paper circuit alligator clips
Figure 11. Attach alligator clip leads to the battery terminals and to the strips of electric paint.
  1. Your completed circuit should now look like the one in Figure 12. Double-check to make sure you have connected everything correctly, then move on to the next section to record your data (if your LED does not light up, see the troubleshooting suggestions in the next section).
paper circuit conductive paint
Figure 12. A completed circuit with a 9 V battery, alligator clips, electric paint, and an LED.

Testing Different Conductive Materials with a 9 V Battery

  1. Create a data table, like Table 2, in which to record your results. Make sure you clearly label the new table as the "9V Battery Data."
    1. Important: Note that you will not be testing the copper tape and aluminum foil with the 9 V battery. These materials are very good conductors; so good, in fact, that they let too much electricity flow from a 9 V battery, which will burn out the LED.
9 V Battery Data
Material Trial 1 Trial 2 Trial 3 Total
Copper tape XXXX
Aluminum foil XXXX
Electric paint     
Conductive ink     
6B graphite pencil     
HB #2 pencil     
Table 2. Table in which to record whether or not the LED lights up when using the 9 V battery. Remember that you will not test the copper tape or aluminum foil with the 9 V battery.
  1. You should already have your first trial with electric paint set up from the previous section. Record whether or not the LED lights up in Table 2. Important: Before you record that the LED does not light up, do some quick troubleshooting to make sure you did not make any errors when connecting your circuit.
    1. Try pressing down firmly on the leads of the LED to make sure they are in contact with the electric paint.
    2. Try flipping around the alligator clip connections on the paint (not on the battery), just in case you connected the LED backwards.
    3. If you try both of these things and the LED still does not light up, then record "no" in the appropriate place in Table 2.
    4. Write down any additional observations you make about lighting up the LED. For example, does the LED seem very bright or very dim? Did you have to press down extra hard to get it to light up?
  2. Repeat step 2 two more times, for a total of three trials with the electric paint.
    1. Each time, use a new section of the same piece of paper, so all your electric paint trials are on the same piece of paper.
    2. Label each new circuit "Trial 2" and "Trial 3," respectively.
    3. You can reuse the same battery and LED. If your tape starts to lose its stickiness, use a new piece of tape.
    4. Remember to fill in the appropriate column in Table 2.
  3. Repeat steps 2–3 for each of your other conductive materials, except the copper tape and aluminum foil. Important: Before you test your other conductive materials, carefully review these notes:
    1. Use a new piece of paper for each different material.
    2. You can continue to reuse the same battery and LED.
    3. Use a ruler to make sure all your strips of material are 5 mm wide.
    4. For the conductive ink, make sure to completely fill in the two 5 mm wide strips; do not leave any white spots on the paper.
    5. For the pencils, make sure you fill in the 5 mm wide strips darkly by pressing down hard, and drawing back and forth over the same area multiple times.
    6. Remember to fill in the correct row of Table 2 each time.
  4. Fill in the last column of Table 2 with the total number of times you could get the LED to light up for each material. For example, if you wrote "yes, yes, no" for three trials, you would write "2" in the "Total" column.

Analyzing Your Results

  1. Based on Table 1, which material(s) worked the best with the coin cell battery?
    1. Did any materials light up the LED brightly all three times?
    2. Did any materials only light up the LED a few times, or only cause the LED to light up dimly?
    3. Did any materials not work at all?
    4. How do these results compare to your predictions?
  2. Make a graph using the data in Table 1. Put the type of conductive material on the x-axis (horizontal), and the number of times the LED lit up on the y-axis (vertical). Refer to the Create a Graph website if you need help making a graph.
  3. Based on Table 2, which material(s) worked the best with the 9 V battery?
    1. Did any materials light up the LED brightly all three times?
    2. Did any materials only light up the LED a few times, or only cause the LED to light up dimly?
    3. Did any materials not work at all?
    4. How do these results compare to your predictions?
  4. Make a graph using the data in Table 2. Put the type of conductive material on the x-axis (horizontal), and the number of times the LED lit up on the y-axis (vertical).
  5. Based on all of your results, which type of conductive material and which type of battery would you want to use to make a paper circuit? Why?

Optional: Making Your Own Paper Circuit Art Project

Now that you know the basics of making a paper circuit, you can pick which conductive material and type of battery you want to use based on the results of your experiment. Are there any qualitative aspects of the materials you want to consider; for example, what the materials look like, or how easy they are to use? For directions to make a circuit with multiple LEDs using a coin cell battery and copper tape, see the Make a Paper Circuit activity. Based on the results of your experiment, can you substitute in other materials or use a 9 V battery instead?

Technical Note

Batteries are not only rated by their voltage, but by how much current they can provide. For example, AA batteries provide about 1.5 V each, and you can combine two of them to provide 3 V. This is the same voltage as the coin cell battery in this project, but AA batteries can provide much more current. See the Variations section for a project idea based on this concept.

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Variations

  • In addition to painting or drawing, do you like making sculptures? You can also make circuits with LEDs using play dough sculptures. See the following Science Buddies projects to learn how to make "squishy circuits":
  • Electronic textiles, or e-textiles for short, refer to electronics that are embedded in fabrics or clothing. They are similar to paper circuits because they typically use alternative circuit materials instead of copper wire, and they can add a fun "artistic" twist to an electronics project. For an example e-textiles project, see the Science Buddies project LED Dance Glove: Get the Party Started with Your Own Interactive Light Show.
  • What happens if you change the length or width of your strips of conductive material? This will affect their electrical resistance, or how much they resist the flow of electricity. For a more-advanced version of this project, which involves measuring resistance, see Electric Paint: Light Up Your Painting.
  • What happens if you compare different types of batteries that all provide 3 V? For example, you can compare the 3 V coin cell battery to two AAA batteries, two AA batteries, and two D batteries (all 1.5 V each; 3 V when combined in series). You will need to do some research and problem solving to figure out how you can hook all these batteries up to a paper circuit. (Hint: Search for "battery holders" from an electronics vendor like Jameco Electronics). Despite having the same voltage, do the batteries give different results? Can you look up the data sheets for the batteries to explain why?

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