Paper circuits are fun and easy to make, but did you know you can even power them without batteries? A paper generator works by building up a static charge in a sheet of Teflon — the same material used as a non-stick coating on pots and pans. Teflon also happens to be an electret, which means it has the ability to hold an excess of negatively-charged electrons. When you connect a sheet of charged Teflon to a circuit and tap, rub, or shake it, you can create enough static electricity to light an LED!

This project was adapted from my book Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures You Can Cut, Fold, and Roll, based on a paper generator idea from Disney Research, which used it to create self-lighting prototypes of greeting cards, books, and game boards.

What could you do with a paper circuit that doesn’t need batteries?

Project Steps

Build Your Paper Circuit

Place two strips of aluminum foil tape on a stiff piece of paper, about half an inch apart.

Connect the LED to the circuit

Take the LED bulb and bend the leads apart. Place it between the strips of tape with the LED pointing straight up. (This makes it easier to see.) Use small pieces of aluminum foil tape to attach each lead onto a strip of foil.

Charge the Teflon sheet

Cut a piece of the Teflon sheet about roughly the size of a small index card. Crumple up the sheet of newspaper. Rub the newspaper on the non-stick sheet 20 or 30 times. The newspaper will give up some of its electrons to the Teflon, giving it a negative charge. The Teflon should hold onto the charge permanently.

Light 'er Up!

In a darkened room, place the generator on a table. Place one hand on one strip of foil to close the circuit. With your other hand, rub the non-stick sheet briskly on the other strip of foil.

You should see the LED flash on and off. That’s because your rubbing motion is making the current flow back and forth, and the LED will only light up when the current is going in the right direction. You can also try tapping the Teflon sheet.

Depending on the LED, you may also be able to get it to light by rubbing across both strips. Some can be lit by merely waving the Teflon sheet near them!