Fun with LEDs


This summer I built several LED projects including sequential LED chasers (sequentially left to right) and also "Nite-Rider" style which go (sequentially left-right-left-right-etc). Many more LED schematics can be found on the World Wide Web via a Google search. LED projects are great fun for both HAM's and SWL's alike. They are also a lot of fun for children to experiment with. Currently, I am experimenting with PIC microcontrollers to perform LED "tricks".

I also built several very bright LED flashlights which run on a single 1.5 volt battery. For ultra-bright LED flashlight schematics, check out Dick Cappel's  excellent and very informative web site. He has a number of LED driver circuits and other great schematics and theory. To wind the inductor for these LED flashlights, I had good success using an FT-37-43 ferrite torroid core. I used at least 40 turns of wire which is generally center tapped.

LED Chasers

Above. This is the schematic for a very basic 10 LED chaser I built. I prefer my "chasers" to run slower than most and chose a 10 uF capacitor for C1. The 10K pot can reduce the flash speed from not moving to whatever minimum time constant is possible with the C1 value you choose. Don't bother with ultra-bright LEDs for these "chaser" projects as cheaper, lower millicandela (mcd) LEDS work fine. I favor blue and green LEDS. The 4017 decade counter is a fabulous part and can be driven to flash a row of LEDs with a 555 timer chip or a discrete BJT multivibrator.

Update Feb 25, 2011: Many "experts" have emailed, or flamed me on web forums to say this circuit can't possibly work.  I really hope these unhappy men cultivate enough humility to study and understand the 555 and more importantly; to reap some of the happiness and joy that comes from being positive and helpful to others. Since 2005, greater than 300 builders have emailed to say this simple circuit works and they want to learn more about electronics.

My intent was to have the least number of parts to flash some LEDs. Some new builders become overwhelmed when the parts count is high — I once shared this fear and relate. You'll see a number of different bias circuits for the 555. Many builders run the reset pin; Pin 4 high (connected to the 9 volt battery) and as a rule, this is a good thing to do, but it's not necessary for the circuit to work.  Pin 7 is an open collector output to ground — its primary purpose is to discharge the capacitor.

It's important for the DC voltage in the pot wiper to not become too close to the + 9 volt rail or VCC (This happens when when the pot is rotated so that maximal DC voltage appears on pin 7), as pin 7 would draw excessive current. In my original schematic I left out a series resistor from VCC to the pot to eliminate this problem. After some thought, I added a 1K resistor on Feb 25, 2011, although this limits the rate somewhat. I run the pot on my circuit about mid-range and it hasn't been re-adjusted (or turned off) since 2005.

Also, the rotated pot wiper shouldn't get within a couple of hundred ohms of the capacitor as that too would cause excessive current spikes into pin 7. Generally, I prefer not to have much current on the wiper of a pot or, at least, try to keep the current small. Often, you can use a pot to set the desired timer speed and then remove, measure and substitute 2 standard value fixed resistors. A better way is to use math and calculate the resistor values, but this involves math and some people want nothing to do with equations.

This circuit is meant to provide a minimalist working circuit, but doesn't provide a great example of 555 design. Happily, for those wanting to learn more, countless great 555 tutorials may be found on the web. One of my 555 favorite sites is that managed by fellow Canadian Rob Paisley. Increasingly, I am exchanging electronics-related emails with model railroad enthusiasts across the globe and many of them know of Rob's wonderful web site.

Matthew Ritchie built and posted a nice version of the LED Chaser on YouTube. A reader sent in this breadboard photo.

By far, the coolest device incorporating the LED chaser lies within a sculpture called Cyanic by Seattle-area artist Allet. Click for his web site. Cyanic may be found on the New Sculpture Build section on his web site. You have to start the Quick Time video manually with a mouse click. I love Allett's work and his lastest light sculpture exemplifies how the Internet can unite creative people with a positive attitude.

A 10 LED sequential flasher in a blue Hammond chassis. The schematic is shown above.

An RC oscillator designed for a 3 volt LED chaser. It oscillates quite slowly so the LED chaser it triggers will not be overly distracting. Some RC oscillator design details are discussed later. This oscillator triggered a 4017 decade counter instead of the 555 timer chip shown in the "Simple 10 LED Chaser" schematic. There are many links describing the theory of the 2 transistor astable multivibrator on the World Wide Web. I also have some information on this web page.

Above . This is a tiny 3 volt chaser which uses an LED bar instead of discrete LEDs. It draws 3.8 mA peak current on pulses. It uses the optimized BJT astable multivibrator shown directly above which fires at ~120 cycles per minute (slowly). The 3 volt battery pack is hidden behind it and should last several months. Soldering the LED bar was not an easy task. The plastic Hammond case measures 2.46 by 1.38 inches (6.25 by 3.5 cm).

A schematic to allow the 4017 decade counter to sequentially flash 6 LEDS left-right-left-right-etc. Connect your favorite square wave oscillator to pin 14. I built 4 of these using various oscillators and LED colors. You might consider using lower DC voltages and if so, may adjust the 1K current limiting resistor by using ohm's law. The 10 small signal diodes may be any appropriate type including the 1N914 or 1N4148. None of my 4 projects exceeded 6 mA peak current draw, so battery life is excellent. I increased the 1K resistor to 1K5 in my 4th project as I found the LED's that I used too bright.

The prototype "nite-rider" project with messy wiring. The holes for the LEDs were bored with a hand drill and it shows! The discrete transistor multivibrator can be seen behind the 4017 IC.

One of the four "nite-rider" project chassis I built. After completion, this one was given to the son of VE7KPB. When drilling in a plastic chassis, I learned it is best to use a drill press set to a lower speed.

Sequentially Off LED Pulser

This circuit uses a series of transistors with an RC pair to pulse a string of LEDs.

This the favorite LED experiment I performed this summer. This flasher circuit is different in that it turns off alternate LEDs for about 1 second in sequence. When you connect this circuit to the 9 volt battery, all of the transistors are usually placed in saturation and therefore all the LEDs are on. Closing the switch on the base terminal of Q1 for a moment initiates the correct pulse sequence. The pulse initiates in Q1 which turns off the LED connected to the Q1 collector for about 1 second. When Q1 turns back on (goes into saturation), Q2 turns off. When Q2 turns back on then Q3 turns off and so on. The circuit is a closed loop and many more stages may be added.

You can experiment with different base resistor and coupling capacitor values to vary the speed of the LED string or to create a sense of randomness by varying each transistor's RC stage separately. This is a fun circuit!

Youtube link  (not mine).

The prototype 3 transistor version. I just used a piece of wire to ground the Q1 base terminal and establish the correct pulse sequence after powering it up. For the LEDs, transistors, resistors and capacitors you can use whatever appropriate parts that you happen to have on hand. Current draw is less than 10 mA with a fresh 9 volt battery. Decrease the 1K5 current limiting resistor to 1K or so if you want brighter LEDs at the expense of more current draw. Do not operate this circuit above 9 volts unless you connect diodes from the transistor emitters to ground to prevent emitter-base breakdown.

LED 1 and 2 are on and LED 3 is off at this moment in time.

Above and below photographs. This low current version has 9 LEDs connected in a chain and is powered by 3 volts. The 10th LED (extreme right hand side) is a flashing LED which is directly connected to the 3 volt supply and also uses a 1K current limiting resistor. Total peak current draw is only ~ 7 mA, yet it is still bright enough to see at night-time. The power supply is 2 D-cell batteries connected in series and then to the circuit by soldering wires directly onto the batteries with a 100 watt soldering iron.

NoNot counting the 10th flashing LED, 5 of the 9 LEDs are on at any given moment. A sequential flash effect is noted (the state of each LED flip-flops and shifts over 1 position each flash). If you build this project with an even number of LEDs, the sequential effect is not seen. Half of the LEDS (spaced every other LED) are on and the other half are off at any moment. The same LEDs are lit or unlit each pulse. Thus the effect is more like a typical multivibrator LED flasher. This variable, even versus odd number of stages property makes the circuit quite versatile.


I hope that you have some fun experimenting with these and other circuits.