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The Easter Solar Engine

A Solar Engine is a circuit that takes in and stores electrical energy from solar cells, and when a
predetermined amount has accumulated, it switches on to drive a motor or other actuator. A solar
engine is not really an 'engine' in itself, but that is its name by established usage. It does provide
motive force, and does work in a repeating cycle, so the name is not a complete misnomer. Its virtue
is that it provides usable mechanical energy when only meager or weak levels of sunlight, or artificial
room light, are present. It harvests or gathers, as it were, bunches of low grade energy until there is
enough for an energy giving meal for a motor. And when the motor has expended the serving of
energy, the solar engine circuit goes back into its gathering mode. It is an ideal way to intermittently
power models, toys, or other small gadgets on very low light levels.
It is a great idea which was first thought up and reduced to practice by one Mark Tilden, a scientist at
os Alamos !ational aboratory. "e came up with an elegantly simple two#transistor solar engine
circuit that made tiny solar powered robots possible.
$ince then, a number of enthusiasts have thought up solar engine circuits with various features and
improvements. The one described herein has proven itself to be very versatile and robust. It is named
after the day on which its circuit diagram was finali%ed and entered into the author's &orkshop
!otebook, 'aster $unday, ())*. +ver the years since, the author has made and tested several do%en in
various applications and settings. It works well in low light or high, with large storage capacitors or
small. And the circuit uses only common discrete electronic components, diodes, transistors, resistors
and a capacitor.
This Instructable describes the basic 'aster 'ngine circuit, how it works, construction suggestions, and
shows some applications. A basic familiarity with electronics and soldering up circuits is assumed. If
you haven't done anything like this but are eager to have a go, it would be well to first tackle
something simpler. -ou might try the The .'/ $olar 'ngine in Instructables or the 0$olar 1owered
$ymet0 described in the book 02unkbots, 3ugbots, 4 3ots on &heels0, which is an excellent
introduction to making pro5ects such as this one.
Step 1: Easter Engine Circuit
This is the schematic diagram for the 'aster engine together with a list of the electronic components
that make it up. The design of the circuit was inspired by the 0Micropower $olar 'ngine0 by 6en
"untington and the 0$uneater I0 by $tephen 3olt. In common with them, the 'aster engine has a two#
transistor trigger#and#latch section, but with a slightly different resistor network interconnecting them.
This section consumes very little power in itself when activated, but allows enough current to be taken
out to drive a single transistor that switches on a typical motor load.
"ere is how the 'aster engine works. $olar cell $7 slowly charges up the storage capacitor 7*.
Transistors 8* and 8( form a latching trigger. 8* is triggered on when the voltage of 7* reaches
the level of conductance through the diode string /*#/9. &ith two diodes and one '/ as shown in
the diagram, the trigger voltage is about (.9:, but more diodes can be inserted to raise this level if
&hen 8* turns on, the base of 8( is pulled up through ;< to turn it on also. +nce it is on, it maintains
base current via ;* through 8* to keep it on. The two transistors are thus latched on until the supply
voltage from 7* falls to around *.9 or *.<:.
&hen both 8* and 8( are latched on, the base of the 0power0 transistor 81 is pulled down through
;9, turning it on to drive the motor M, or other load device. ;esistor ;9 also limits the base current
though 81, but the value shown is ade=uate to turn the load on hard enough for most purposes. If a
current of more than say ())mA to the load is desired, ;9 can be reduced and a heavier duty transistor
can be used for 81, such as a (!(>)?. The values of the other resistors in the circuit were chosen @and
testedA to limit the current used by the latch to a low level.

Step 2: Stripboard Layout
A very compact embodiment of the 'aster engine can be constructed on ordinary stripboard as shown
in this illustration. This is a view from the component side with the copper strip tracks below shown in
gray. The board is only ).B0 by *.)0, and only four of the tracks must be cut as shown by the white
circles in the tracks.
The circuit depicted here has one green '/ /* and two diodes /( and /9 in the trigger string for a
turn#on voltage of about (.C:. The diodes are positioned upright with the cathode end upward, that is,
oriented toward the negative bus strip on the right hand edge of the board. An additional diode can be
easily installed in place of the 5umper shown from /* to /( to bump up the turn#on point.
The turn#off voltage can also be raised as described in the next step.
+f course, other board formats can be used. The fourth photo below shows an 'aster engine built on a
small general purpose prototyping board. It is not as compact and orderly as the stripboard layout, but
on the other hand it leaves lots of room for working, and space for adding diodes or multiple storage
capacitors. +ne could also use 5ust plain perforated phenolic board with the necessary connections
wired and soldered below.
Step 3: Trigger Voltages
This table shows the approximate turn#on voltages for various combinations of diodes and '/s that
have been tried in the the trigger string of various 'aster engines. All of these trigger combinations
can be fit onto the stripboard layout of the previous step, but the <#diode and * '/ combination
would have to have a diode#to#diode 5oint soldered above the board.
The '/s used in making the table measurements were older low intensity reds. Most other newer red
'/s that have been tried work about the same, with maybe a variation of only about plus or minus
).*: in their trigger level. 7olor has an influence, a green '/ gave a trigger level of about ).(:
higher than a comparable red. A white '/ with no diodes in series gave a turn#on point of (.B:.
.lashing '/s are not appropriate for this engine circuit.
A useful feature of the 'aster engine is that the turning#off voltage can be raised without affecting the
turning#on level by inserting one or more diodes in series with the base of 8(. &ith a single *!>*<
diode connected from the 5unction of ;< and ;C to the base of 8(, the circuit turns off when the
voltage drops to around *.> or (.):. &ith two diodes, the turn#off voltage measured approximately
(.C:D with three diodes, it turned off at about 9.*:. +n the stripboard layout, the diode or diode string
can be located in place of the 5umper shown above the resistor ;CD the second illustration below shows
one diode /) thus installed. !ote that the cathode end must go to the base of 8(.
Thus it is possible to effectively use the 'aster engine with motors that do not run well near the basic
turn#off of about *.9 or *.<:. The solar engine in the toy $E: in the photos was made to turn on at
9.(: and turn off at (.): because in that voltage range the motor has good power.
Step 4: Capacitors, Motors, and Solar Cells
The capacitor used in the toy $E: is like the one shown on the left in the illustration below. It is a full
* .arad rated for use at up to C:. .or lighter duty applications or shorter motor runs, smaller
capacitors give shorter cycle times and, of course, shorter runs. The voltage listed on a capacitor is the
maximum voltage to which it should be chargedD exceeding that rating shortens the life of the
capacitor. Many of the super capacitors intended specifically for memory backup have a higher
internal resistance and so do not release their energy rapidly enough to drive a motor.
A solar engine such as the 'aster engine is fine for driving motors that have an internal static
resistance of about *) +hms or more. The most common variety of toy motors have much lower
internal resistance @( +hms is typicalA and so will drain all the energy from the storage capacitor
before the motor can really get going. The motors shown in the second photo below all work fine.
They can often be found as surplus or new from electronic suppliers. $uitable motors can also be
found in 5unked tape recorders or :7;s. They can usually be singled out as having a diameter larger
than its length.
7hoose a solar cell or cells that will provide a voltage somewhat higher than the turn#on point of your
engine under the light levels that your application will see. The real beauty of the solar engine is that it
can collect low grade apparently useless energy and then release it in useful doses. They are most
impressive when, from 5ust sitting on a desk or coffee table or even on the floor, they suddenly pop to
life. If you want your engine to work indoors, or on cloudy days, or in the shade as well as in the
open, use cells designed for indoor use. These cells are usually of the amorphous thin film on glass
variety. They give a healthy voltage under low light, and the current corresponds to the illumination
level and their si%e. $olar calculators use this kind of cell, and you can take them from old @or newFA
calculators, but they are =uite small these days and so their current output is low. The voltage of
calculator cells ranges from *.C up to (.C volts in low light, and about a half a volt more in the sun.
-ou'll want a number of them connected in series#parallel. &ire Glue is excellent for attaching fine
wire leads to these glass cells. $ome solar rechargeable keychain flashlights have a large cell that
works well indoors with solar engines. At the present time, Images $I Inc. carries new indoor cells of
a si%e suitable for directly driving a solar engine from a single cell. Their 0outdoor0 solar cell of the
same type works =uite well indoors as well.
More commonly available from many sources is the crystalline or polycrystalline type of solar cell.
These types put out a lot of current in sunshine, but are specifically intended for life in the sun. $ome
do modestly well in lower light, but most are pretty dismal in a room lit by flourescents.
Step : E!ternal Connections
To make the connections from the circuit board to the solar cell and motor, pin tail sockets taken from
inline strips are very convenient. The pin sockets can be easily emancipated from the plastic setting in
which they come by careful use of nippers. The tails can be snipped off after the pins are soldered in
the board.
$olid (< gage wire plugs into the sockets nice and secure, but usually externals are connected via
flexible stranded hookup wire. The same sockets can be soldered to the ends of these wires to serve as
little 0plugs0 that fit into the sockets on board beautifully.
3oard sockets can also be provided into which the storage capacitor can be plugged. It can mount
directly into the sockets, or be remotely located and connected via wire leads plugged to the board.
This makes it possible to easily change and try different capacitors until the best one is found for the
application and its average lighting conditions. After the best value of 7* is found, it still can be
permanently soldered in place, but rarely has this been found necessary if good =uality sockets are
Step ": #pplications
1erhaps our favorite application of an 'aster engine is in the toy 2eepster $E: illustrated in $tep 9. A
thin plywood bottom was cut to fit the body, and large foam wheels were made to give it a 0Monster
&heel0 look, but in operation it is =uite docile. The underside is shown in the photo below. The axles
are set to make the car run in a tight circle @because we have a small living roomA and the front wheel
drive setup greatly helps it stick to the intended circular path. The gear train was taken from a
commercial hobby motor unit shown in the next photo, but it was fitted out with a *9 +hm motor.

A * .arad super capacitor gives the car about *) seconds of run time each cycle, which takes it almost
completely around a 9 foot diameter circle. It takes a while to charge up on cloudy days or when the
car happens to stop in a dark spot. Anywhere from C to *C minutes is usual during the day in our living
room. If it finds direct sunlight coming in a window, it recharges in about two minutes. It travels
around in a corner of the room and has logged many revolutions since being built in ())<.
Another amusing application of the 'aster engine is 0&alker0, a robot#like creature that waddles along
by means of two arms, or rather, legs. "e uses the same motor and gear train setup as the 2eepster with
the same ?H,* ratio. +ne of his legs is purposely shorter than the other so that he walks in a circle.
&alker also carries a blinking '/ so we know where he is on the floor after dark.
An simple use for a solar engine is as a flag waver or spinner. The one shown in the Cth photo below
can sit on a desk or shelf and every now and then it will suddenly, and rather wildly, spin a little ball
around on a string thereby attracting attention to itself. $ome embodiments of these simple spinners
had a 5ingle bell on the string. +thers had a stationary bell mounted nearby so that it would get
smacked by the flailing ball # but that tends to become annoying after a few sunny daysF
Step $: %&% Easter Engine
The 'aster engine can also be made in the complementary or 'dual' version, with two !1! transistors
and one 1!1. The complete schematic is shown in the first illustration here. The stripboard layout
can have the same component locations and the same track cuts as the first or '1!1' version, the
essential changes being switched transistor types and reversed polarity of the solar cell, storage
capacitor, diodes and '/s. The !1! stripboard layout is shown in the second illustration and
incorporates an extra diode /< for a higher turn#on voltage, and a diode /) from the base of transistor
8( to the 5unction of resistors ;< and ;C for a higher turn#off voltage as well.