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Make a Paper Circuit

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9 reviews

Summary

Active Time
45 minutes to 1 hour
Total Project Time
45 minutes to 1 hour
Key Concepts
circuit, electricity, conductor, insulator, battery, LED
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

This activity was inspired by the work of the High-Low Tech Group at the MIT Media Lab

Scotch® is a registered trademark of 3M.

How to Make Paper Circuits

Introduction

Do you like arts and crafts projects like drawing, painting, cutting shapes out of construction paper, or origami? Instead of drawing that bright sun or lights in a house, imagine adding real lights to your artwork! This project will show you how, by introducing you to the world of electronics with "paper circuits." Paper circuits are made with just a few simple items; you can use a battery and some copper tape to add tiny lights to your project. The best part is that it is easy to do, and you do not need to know anything about electronics to get started!
This activity is not recommended for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Materials

Circuit materials, available from SparkFun Electronics:

Additional materials you will need from home:
  • Construction paper
  • Scotch® tape
  • Scissors
  • Paper clip or binder clip
  • Optional: Markers, colored pencils, or crayons

Instructions

  1. Cut two long strips of copper tape. Remove the paper backing from the tape, and place them near the edge of a piece of paper, parallel to each other. The strips should be about half an inch apart, and one strip should not go all the way to the edge of the paper.

  2. Look closely at one of your LEDs. The LED has two legs, called leads (pronounced "leeds"). One of them is slightly longer than the other.

  3. Carefully bend the leads of the LED, and use Scotch tape to attach each lead to a strip of the copper tape. The LED should be pointing upward. Important: Make sure to place your LED's leads as they are labeled in the figure. The longer lead should be on the outer strip of copper tape (the one closer to the edge of the paper), and the shorter lead should be on the inner strip.

  4. Place the coin cell battery on top of the inner piece of copper tape (the one farther from the edge). The writing on the coin cell (the side with the "+" symbol) should be facing up

  5. Fold over the corner of the piece of paper so the second strip of copper tape contacts the top of the battery. This should cause your LED to light up.
    1. If your LED does not light up, you probably have either the battery or the LED leads backwards. Try flipping one of them around, then try again.
    2. If your LED still does not light up, try pressing down harder on the battery, and press down on the LED leads. The battery and LED leads must be in good contact with the copper tape to complete a circuit and cause the LED to light up.

  6. User a paper clip or a binder clip to hold the battery in place so the LED will stay lit. Congratulations! You just made your first paper circuit. Now you can expand your paper circuit into an art project. The following steps will show you how to make modifications so you can come up with your own creative project. This is an open-ended project, so you can decide what you want to do.

  7. To add more LEDs, simply tape them down the same way you taped down your first LED.
    1. Make sure the LED's long leads are all touching the same piece of copper tape, and the short leads are all touching the other piece of copper tape.
    2. If an LED does not light up, try flipping around its leads. If it still does not light up, make sure it is taped down securely so the leads are in firm contact with the copper tape.
    3. You can mix and match red, green, and yellow LEDs, and they will all light up. However, the blue LEDs will not light up if they are matched with red, green, or yellow LEDs. You can only use blue LEDs with other blue LEDs (this has to do with something called voltage; blue LEDs require more voltage than the other colors).

  8. The copper tape, Scotch tape, and metal LED leads might interfere with your artwork a bit. To make your artwork look less cluttered, you can poke holes in the paper so the LEDs stick through to the other side, and all the other parts are hidden on the back of the paper. Follow the sub-steps below to do this.
    1. Use the LED leads (or another sharp point, like a pencil or pen) to poke two small holes in the paper.
      Leads from an LED bulb are used to poke holes in a sheet of paper
    2. Poke the LED leads through from the opposite side of the paper.
      Two leads from an LED poke through a sheet of paper
    3. Bend the LED leads down and tape them to the copper tape. Important: Remember that the LED's long lead should touch the outer piece of copper tape (the one closer to the edge of the paper), and the short lead should touch the inner piece of tape.
      Two leads from an LED poke through a sheet of paper and are taped down onto two strips of copper tape
    4. Now, when you look at the paper from the other side, only the LED is poking through, with none of the other parts visible.
      An LED bulb sits flush against a sheet of paper
    5. Use a paper clip to hold your battery in place, just like you did before.
      A paperclip holds a battery against the back of a sheet of paper
    6. If your LED does not light up, try flipping the battery around.
  9. Now, what if you want to spread your LEDs out, all around a piece of paper? You can do this by using longer pieces of copper tape. You can kink or bend the tape to create curved shapes. Just make sure the two pieces of tape do not touch each other (this will create a short circuit and prevent the LEDs from lighting up).
    1. Lay out copper tape so you can place LEDs where you want them. Attach the LEDs using the steps above. Remember that the longer lead of each LED should touch the outer piece of tape, and the shorter leads should touch the inner piece of tape.
      Two long strips of copper tape form a U shape on the back of a sheet of paper
    2. Now, when you flip the paper over, you will have multiple LEDs poking through.
      Three LEDs and a paper clip sit on the surface of a sheet of paper
  10. Can you combine everything you learned in the previous steps to make a paper circuit art project of your own? For example, here is a picture with the LEDs in the centers of flowers.

  11. For a more-advanced project, try making a three-dimensional folded structure. This will require more planning for how you lay out your copper tape. For example, the birthday cake below has LED candles.

Cleanup

If you will be away from your paper circuit for a long time, disconnect the battery. This will prevent the battery from draining.

What Happened?

You should have been able to get multiple LEDs to light up by connecting them to a battery using copper tape. This is because you built an electrical circuit. The battery provides electricity to the LEDs, causing them to light up. See the Explore More tab to learn more about circuits.

Digging Deeper

When you connect an LED to the battery using copper tape, you complete a closed circuit. In a closed circuit, electricity can flow through a loop, from the battery, to the LED, and back again, causing the LED to light up. If one or more of the connections is broken (for example, one LED lead is not touching the copper tape), this creates an open circuit. Electricity cannot flow in an open circuit, so the LED goes out. Finally, if your two segments of copper tape touch each other, this creates a short circuit, which would also cause the LED to go out.

When you connect multiple LEDs next to each other, you create a parallel circuit. A parallel circuit is useful because even if one LED becomes disconnected, the other LEDs will stay on. This is different from a series circuit, where if one LED goes out, all the other ones will go out, too.

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For Further Exploration

  • Can you try to create something that uses all four colors of LEDs? Hint: Use your second battery and a second set of copper tape to power the blue LEDs separately from the red, green, and yellow LEDs.
  • What happens if you try to connect the LEDs in a series circuit instead of in a parallel circuit? Can you do more research and explain which is better for connecting LEDs?

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