Let it Glow
When it comes to creating projects that glow, nothing beats EL wire. LEDs are fun and all, but EL wire is what all the hip kids are using. Whether you just want to light up your bicycle for an evening cruise or you’re creating an entire light up costume for Burning Man, EL wire is a great solution. In this tutorial, we will show you how to experiment with EL wire without having to worry about how to connect it, how to control it, and how to power it. With the right parts, EL wire can be very easy to implement into any project.
If you have purchased the SparkFun EL Wire Starter Kit, you should have everything you need to follow along. If you have purchased just a spool of EL wire, the following is a list of suggested parts to help get you started. With these parts, using EL wire can be simple for those who have no electronics experience at all and for those who are extremely knowledgeable but are looking for a quick and easy solution to using EL wire. Before we go into further detail, let’s take a look at what parts we should have:
That might not seem like much, but that’s all you need to get started with any EL project.
How it Works
EL wire (short for electroluminescent wire) is particularly useful for many reasons. First, it is flexible, allowing you to sew it into clothing, attach it to moving parts, and bend it into any shape you desire. Second, it comes in many different colors, shapes, and sizes. You can get it in wire form (the most typical shape), tape form, or in panels. (For the sake of this tutorial, I will refer to all of these forms simply as EL wire.) All of these can be cut to any shape or size to achieve the desired effect. Just be sure to reseal the ends that have been cut. Last, EL wire is great because it is cool to the touch, even after being on for hours. Hence why it is often seen in clothing applications. The EL product does not heat up because, rather than heating an element to achieve an optical phenomenon, the glowing in EL comes from sending an electrical current through the material, which is comprised of semiconducting mixtures. The electrons flowing through the material create photons, which create the glowing that we see as a result.
Many people ask, « Can’t I just hook up EL wire to a battery? » The answer is, no! In order to operate EL wire properly, you must use AC (alternating current) power. This is similar to the power that comes out of your outlets at home, though outlets provide much more current than needed for EL wire. That’s where the inverter comes in. The battery pack included in the EL Starter Kit is not just a battery holder. It houses an inverter as well. This inverter takes the DC (direct current) power produced by the batteries and turns it into AC. If you listen very closely to the inverter battery pack while it’s on, you will hear a slight hum, similar to what you would hear if you stand under power lines or close to transformer boxes. (Note: SparkFun does not condone hanging out around high voltage areas). With that, it’s important to mention that, although the AC power coming from the inverter is not enough to hurt or kill you, it is enough to give you a good shock, so be careful when handling EL products that are powered. As, I mentioned above, you can cut EL wire to any length or shape, but you must reseal the ends you cut. I recommend using hot glue or epoxy to seal cut wire. If you don’t reseal, you could end up getting a good jolt.
How to Use It
Using the EL Wire Starter Kit is about as simple as it gets. Simply plug in the male JST connector from your EL wire into one of the two female JST connectors on the inverter battery pack. Make sure there is a solid connection between the two. Take the battery cover off by sliding in the direction indicated on the pack. Place your batteries in the battery pack inverter, and put the cover back on. Click the button on the case, and your EL wire should illuminate. Press it again for a slow blinking effect, and press it once more for a fast blink. This inverter pack allows you to connect two EL products of your choice at a time. You can mix and match colors as well as shapes. You coul have a red panel with blue wire, green tape with a pink wire, or two yellow and purple wires. The possibilities are endless!
If you need a little more explanation, you can check out our demonstaration video. In it, the two different inverters that SparkFun carries are breifly described, and you can see how each color looks when it’s illuminated.
It’s as simple as that. However, if you are looking for more of a challenge, fear not. EL projects can become very complex, very quickly. You may have noticed that the effects are somewhat limited on the inverter, and both products hooked up behave the same when plugged into it. Let’s say you want one color to blink while the other stays solid. You could purchase another inverter battery pack, or you could get one of the many boards out there that are specifically designed to work with EL products. SparkFun carries two such boards, the EL Sequencer and the EL Escudo Dos. Both of these boards are designed to handle many EL products hooked up to them at once, and there are many different effects you can create with both. If you’re looking for something a little more, check out the Wrapping it Up section.
Wrapping it Up
You should now know everything you need to know to get started with EL wire and the EL Wire Starter Kit. If you have any questions or comments please drop them in the box below. For more information on EL products, how to control them, and project ideas, please check out the following links:
- Heartbeat Straight Jacket
- Setting up an EL display with the EL Escudo Dos
- EL Projects on Instructables