LED Bike Light Doodles

LED Bike Light Notes
LED Bike Light Notes

I need an LED taillight (and maybe headlight) with a metal case and far more LEDs than seems reasonable. This is a doodle to sort out some ideas… not all of which will work out properly.

The general notion is that one can put today’s crop of ultrasuperbright 5 mm LEDs to good use. While the Luxeon & Cree multi-watt LEDs are good for lighting up the roadway, they’re really too bright and power-hungry for rear-facing lights. Mostly, you want bright lights facing aft, but the beam pattern & optical niceness really aren’t too critical as long as you’re not wasting too many photons by lighting up the bushes.

I think, anyway. Must build one and see how it works. I know that a narrow beam is not a Good Thing, as cars do not approach from directly behind and it make aiming the light rather too finicky.

The problem with commercial bike taillights is that they use piddly little LEDs and not enough of them. If you’ve ever actually overtaken a bicyclist at night with a blinky LED taillight, you’ve seen the problem: they’re too damn small. Automobile taillights must have a very large surface area for well and good reason.

But who wants to lug the taillight off a ’59 Caddy around?

So the diagram in the pic explores the notion of arranging a bunch of red & amber LEDs in a fairly compact array. The shaded ones are red, the open ones are amber (with two more side-facing ambers to meet legal requirements), and there are eight of each. The OD is about 40 mm. Figure 5 mm LEDs with 2.5 mm of aluminum shell between them. If the center four LEDs were spaced right, an axial (socket-head cap?) screw could hold the entire affair together.

Turns out both the red & amber LEDs in the bags of 100 I just got from Hong Kong run at 2 V forward drop @ 30-ish mA, so that’s 16 V total for eight in series.

Four AA NiMH cells fit neatly behind the array, so the supply will be 4 – 5 V, more or less. The outer casing could be plastic pipe.

What to do for a battery charging port? Must be mostly weatherproof. Ugh.

Rather than a regulated supply and a current sink / resistor, use an inductor: build up the desired forward current by shorting the inductor to ground, then snap the juice into the LEDs. The voltage ratio is about 4:1, so the discharge will happen 4x faster than the charge for a duty cycle around 20%. At that ratio, you can kick maybe 50 mA into the poor things.

Governing equation: V = L (ΔI/ΔT)

If they’re running continuously, 2 V x 50 mA x 0.2 = 20 mW. The full array of red or amber is 160 mW, 320 mW for both. If you’re powering them at 10% duty cycle, then the average power dissipation is pretty low. Not much need for an external heatsink in any event.

A 1 kHz overall cycle means a 200 µs inductor charging period. With low batteries at 4 V and 50 mA peak current, the inductor is 16 mH. That’s a lot of inductor. I have a Coilcraft SMD design kit that goes up to 1 mH: 12 µs charge and 16 kHz overall. Well, I wouldn’t be able to hear that.

No need for current sensing if the microcontroller can monitor battery voltage and adjust the charge duration to suit; three or four durations would suffice. Needs an ADC input or an analog window comparator.

Automotive LED taillights seem to run at about 10% duty cycle just above my flicker fusion frequency; say between 50 – 100 Hz. If that’s true, red & amber could be “on” simultaneously, but actually occupy different time slots within a 100 Hz repeat and keep the overall duty cycle very low.

I’d like red on continuously (10% of every 10 ms) with amber blinking at 4 Hz with a 50% duty cycle. When they’re both on the total would be 60% duty.

The legal status of blinking taillights is ambiguous, as is their color; more there. Motorcycles may have headlight modulators. Bikes, not so much.

Battery life: assume crappy 1500 mAh cells to 1 V/cell. Red = 50 mA x 0.2 x 0.1 = 1 mA. Amber = 50 mA x 0.2 x 0.5 = 5 mA. Thus 1500 / 6 = 250 hours. Figure half of that due to crappy efficiency, it’s still a week or two of riding.

Rather than a power switch, use a vibration sensor: if the bike’s parked, shut off the light after maybe 5 minutes. It wouldn’t go off when you’re on the bike, even stopped at a light, because you’re always wobbling around a little.

Memo to Self: put the side LEDs on the case split line?

6 thoughts on “LED Bike Light Doodles

  1. As for the vibration sensor, we were presuming in the designs we’re playing with at work that we’d have a little PIR detector on the headlight, pointing backwards, so that if a person was in the seat space and the photodiode said it was more or less dark, the light would be on. We figured that’d cover most eventualities.
    I’m sorry that LumiLED has discontinued the K2’s and III’s, as they offered a lot of distribution patterns, from nearly the same light intensity over 170 degrees down to 20 degree spots, so we could have several 20 degree spots on the headlight, with a couple 170 degrees below them to provide general illumination and alert other people we were coming. The new rebels all seem to be broad illumination, so then ya have to make a parabolic reflector, which is really difficult when there’s a big honkin’ LED down in the pit of it. grumble.

    1. a little PIR detector

      That way lies madness: bikes spend most of their hours doing nothing, so you’re left with a circuit that’s gnawing on the battery all day, in the off chance that somebody might show up. If you slow it down enough to save the battery, it takes too long to figure out you’re on the bike: you’re certainly not going to ride off until the light fires up, just in case the battery is dead. Which it will be, after a few days of doing nothing.

      Of course, a mechanical vibration sensor will gradually beat itself into a pile of metal dust…

      Ya can’t win!

  2. BETTER IF YOU USE 3 X AA SIZE USE N THROW PENCIL CELL (BATTERY) AND FIVE WHITE LED IN PARALLEL CONNECTION WITHOUT ANY COMPONENT EXCEPT A SWITCH. IT IS THE BEST MATCH AND ALMOST WORKS FOR 300 TO 500 HOURS AND WILL REMAIN EASY TOO EVEN FOR TAIL LIGHT IT WILL REMAIN EASY AS WELL AS CHEAPEST.

    1. I like the simplicity and really like rechargeable AA cells, but I also need a low duty cycle blink to make us more conspicuous. A steady tail light just doesn’t stand out against the visual clutter around here, alas.

      The Li-Ion battery packs I just mounted on the bikes have plenty of capacity and produce 9 V, so I’d like to build a light that can use any power source in the 9-13 V range.

      Several series strings of seven amber or red LEDs ought to be conspicuous enough… particularly if I leave the red ones on and flash the ambers!

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