Use copper tape and surface-mount LEDs to make creative circuits on a flat surface, like a piece of paper. You can make light-up greeting cards, make origami animals come to life, or create three-dimensional pop-up paper sculpture that have working lights in them.
The basic circuit is very simple, and yet allows for a wide range of explorations and aesthetic expression. With a little more effort, you can add switches, which can be as simple as a piece of aluminum foil, to add a dynamic element to your creation. The window on the little house above lights up when you close the door. Or you can keep the circuit really simple and let your creativity shine in other ways, like making this beautiful cupcake with light-up sprinkles…
Here is a list of useful parts if you want to experiment with paper circuits.
Copper tape You can get 5mm copper tape, ready for use, from sparkfun.com (part # PRT-10561). It is also often sold in hardware stores under the name of Slug Tape – it is used to tape to lip of planters to prevent slugs and snails from climbing in! In that case, you might want to cut it into thinner strips before using it in your paper circuit.
Gumdrop LEDs These larger LEDs are easier to work with and come in many different colors. We purchase them from Evil Mad Scientist, and a good starter set is red, yellow, green, blue, orange, and white.
Coin cell batteries Any hardware store or electronics store will carry these. They are good to use because they are flat and fit nicely on a sheet of paper. If you want an online source, you can easily order them from sparkfun.
LEDs have two legs of unequal length: the longer one is the positive (+) side of the LED, and the shorter leg is the negative (–) side.
Fold over one corner of the paper and trace the battery on either side of the fold. Try taping down two strips of copper tape with each piece starting from one of the circles and ending about a half inch apart.
Tape down one LED with the legs touching on the copper. Connect the “+” side of the battery to the “+” leg of the LED, and “–” side of the battery to the “–” leg of the LED.
Fold the corner to see the LED lights up. If it doesn't light up, try flipping the battery to make sure the positive side of the battery connects to the positive leg of the LED.
With these starting steps, the possibilities for creating your paper circuits are endless. You can fold the copper tape into different designs or make a collage that is lit by a hidden circuit on another piece of paper underneath.
More inspirations and ideas
We have written a blog post just for you! Click here for tips on how to get started, how to facilitate, and how to expand this activity, whether you're doing it at home, in an afterschool program, or in class. We have been greatly inspired by the work of Jie Qi at Leah Buechley's High-Low Tech group at the MIT Media Lab. Check out their work for more ideas and tutorials.
We are passionate about sharing our work and developing a community of people interested in these activities, practices, and ideas. The guides below are free to download and use to help you get started with tinkering, whether it's at home, or in your school or educational institution.