Surveying bike light components

A simple search for bike lights on Google, at REI or in a bike shop will show that lights made today consist of LEDs with a battery, button, electronics and a reflective plastic lens. From there, things begin to vary. This post surveys the basic components of a simple, generic bike light with two goals in mind. The first goal is to introduce basic knowledge necessary to begin building a bike light: How do the basic components work at a high level? What kinds of challenges do these components introduce? Learning how these components work may provide some intuition about why so many variations of bike light exist. The second goal of this survey is to open the door for deeper and more focused future blog posts as well as inspire my ongoing research into the topic.

As the primary component of a bike light is an LED, it seems reasonable to survey the LED first. LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. Being a diode, the LED has some interesting properties. One property of a light emitting diode is that it will not emit light or sustain a noticeable current unless the voltage across its two leads exceeds some threshold. When the voltage exceeds the threshold, the diode has almost 0 resistance and allows infinite current (thereby also affecting voltage). Since higher current through the diode results in a brighter light and also in heat generated, the LED can quickly act like a short circuit and burn out or catch fire. Therefore, a mechanism must exist to limit the maximum amount of current allowed to flow through the LED when it is turned on. Check Wikipedia for details about LEDs and diodes.

The process of controlling the light output of an LED is typically referred to as “driving an LED.” There are various ways to “drive” an LED, and different LED drivers typically make choices that maximize energy efficiency and minimize circuit complexity. A driver must supply current to the LED, and secondly it might also vary the light’s brightness. A very simple circuit to drive an LED could use a resistor in line with the LED. However, if the LED draws a lot of power, it will waste a fair amount of electricity as heat in the resistor. This inefficiency is costly in a battery operated system. More complex constant current (CC) circuits use two transistors and two resistors arranged in a particular way that efficiently limits the max current through the diode. There are a variety of ways to power LEDs, and the required power electronics can be quite sophisticated! I have not found many good tutorials on constant current LED drivers, but this instructable is enlightening, and this pcbheaven.com tutorial is great. A more helpful search term is “constant current circuit.”

Dimming an LED, or changing its brightness, is also a feature of LED drivers. Somewhat surprisingly, dimming is not as simple as one might think. An inefficient way to dim an LED is to reduce the current through it. This method, known as “analog dimming,” is problematic because, as DigiKey explains, “the regulator supplying the current to the LED must soak up any power not supplied to the LED. […] That power is wasted as heat.” Due to the issues with the analog approach, a digital method has been developed called Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). PWM provides a way to represent an analog signal by controlling the duty cycle of a square wave of high frequency. In other words, a square wave oscillates between high and low voltages. When the square wave goes high, the LED turns on; the LED is off when the square wave goes low. This on-off cycle happens many times per second. In each on-off cycle, known as a wave’s period, adjusting the proportion of that period spent in the high region will adjust the perceived brightness. This proportion is known as the duty cycle, and a 70% duty cycle is brighter than a 20% duty cycle. A convenient way to think about PWM is to think of it as a “flicker” rate where the duty cycle adjusts the percent of time the square wave is high. In this context, you may notice intuitively that if the frequency of a PWM signal is low, it will flicker slowly enough that the human eye could see the individual on-off cycles. Low frequency PWM can be useful for power savings in some contexts because faster clock speeds are associated with more energy usage. High frequency PWM avoids flickering in LEDs. Therefore, to adjust brightness, we want a high frequency PWM signal with variable duty cycle. Implementing PWM in an embedded system is an elaborate topic, and several articles online are dedicated to the topic. We will dive into this in a future blog post.

Pursuing the LED topic further, it is important to recognize that there are many different kinds of LEDs, both in terms of form factor and purpose. One distinction worth pointing out is high power vs low power leds. In bike lights, front lights use high power, super bright LEDs. Cree and Luxeon Rebel are common brands, for instance. These diodes use more current (typically on the order of 0.5 to 2 amps). High power LEDs are so bright that they leave white spots in your eyes for a few minutes if you look directly at them. Because they draw so much current, they can get quite hot and are therefore mounted on different kinds heat sinks typically using a thermal epoxy. These heat sinks themselves have a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Low power LEDs, on the other hand, have different requirements. These are more common as red tail lights. Because low power leds they they have much smaller demands on power consumption, we can often replace complex constant current circuits with resistors. These LEDs can quickly burn out though if given an incorrect voltage, and it is important to realize voltage varies quite a bit between various colors (red is probably the only useful color for a bike light). Thus, we can have high power LEDs for the front light and high or low power LEDs for the back light.

Another distinction between LEDs is their forward voltage. The forward voltage is the voltage drop across leads of the LED when the nominal current flows through it. LEDs designed for battery operated settings (such as flashlights and bike lights) tend to have a forward voltage of 3.6 volts, which is quite similar to a standard voltage for Lithium batteries. However, LEDs designed to replace household Halogen bulbs (like the gu10 variety) will expect to run off of a much higher voltage. The gu10 bulbs I tested had a forward voltage of 9V. GU10 bulbs are neat because they have perfect heat sinks for bike lights, but the higher voltage requirement makes them a appealing choice.

Finally, on the topic of LEDs, it is also useful to consider how LEDs are sold and packaged. In general, the packaging methods for an LED component are the same as they are for many electronic components. Common forms for the surface mount LEDs are as a “tape” or “roll” of tiny components that must be surface mount soldered onto a heat sink. Very small batches are sometimes sold in ziploc bags. The process of soldering a suface mounted LED onto anything is quite complicated because the diodes are sensitive to heat and moisture. Many methods for soldering exist and are quite elaborate in production settings. I generally recommend avoiding surface mount soldering (SMD) of LEDs, though if necessary, I recommend using solder paste and a hot air gun, and also watch a few instructional Youtube videos. The most common form of surface mount LED sold to hobbyists is the “star” shaped heat sink with an LED already mounted onto it. I highly recommend these as a first start. The form factor for through-hole LEDs does not provide a means to sink heat, so through-hole LEDs are low-power. These are fairly straightforward. Shopping online for LEDs is probably the best way to learn more about varieties available.

Moving on from LEDs, we can enter the world of batteries and battery chargers. For a bike light, the key considerations for a battery are its voltage, its milli-amphere hour (mAh) rating, form factor, whether it is rechargeable and its chemistry. Picking an appropriate voltage battery depends on the voltage requirements for the LED driver and other electronics. Typically, a 3.6V Lithium battery is a good choice. The mAh rating for batteries, for marketing purposes by battery vendors, is a unit of measurement that is mis-used to represent battery capacity. Milli-amphere hours technically is not a measure of the battery’s capacity, but a unit of charge that defines how much total charge the battery contains. An acceptable approximation of how many hours a battery will last is to divide its mAh value by the mA consumption. There is a relationship between mAh and voltage worth knowning. Specifically, placing batteries in serial will add their voltages but not their mAh. Conversely, batteries in parallel have a constant voltage but increase in total mAh.

In terms of battery form factor, there are several shapes and sizes of batteries, and size is often an important consideration in project design. Naming conventions for battery form factors is messy. However, for larger cylindrical Lithium-ion batteries, the naming convention is fairly straight-forward and useful. According to Wikipedia, “the larger rechargeable cells are typically assigned five-digit numbers, where the first two digits are the (approximate) diameter in millimeters, followed by the last three digits indicating the (approximate) height in tenths of millimeters.” For instance, 18650 batteries popular in LED flashlights are 18mm in diameter and 65mm long.

Battery chemistry is very complicated and I have not studied it. Chargers for battery chemistries are also quite complicated and detailed. Relevant facts Lithium batteries are that they easily explode or catch fire if incorrectly charge, they die if depleted beyond some minimum voltage, and they can emit huge amounts of current. To solve the minimum voltage problem, some batteries are “protected” meaning they have integrated circuits that will prevent current draw if the battery voltage drops below a minimum acceptable limit. Protected batteries are typically longer than unprotected batteries, and therefore this is evident in the last 3 digits of their conventional names.

Regarding batteries, my recommendation for a bike light is to stick with one of these 3 options: Use 3.6 Lithium batteries for a high power LED, and consider AA or AAA cells for low power LEDs. Battery packs are also available and decent options. If Lithium, be aware of protected vs unprotected batteries.

Finally, as this post has grown quite long, I will briefly outline the topic of buttons. Buttons are, surprisingly, also a large topic. I find the distinction between a “button” and “switch” confusing, so I will define terms. A button refers to any mechanism by which pressing it results in some action. I consider a button as mechanical interface that activates a switch. A switch is any device that can open or close a circuit. For instance, the “lock” button in a wifi-enabled door lock might be an icon on your phone. The switch is the component on the door lock that receives the wifi message to “lock door” and triggers the door lock. In general, the process for choosing a button is identify a possible design, then choose the appropriate switch for that design, next implement a prototype and iterate on these steps until happy. Different kinds of switches exist, including reed, latching, momentary, rocker and “button” switches. Read about them on Wikipedia. A bike light typically has requirements that the button be waterproof or water resistant (see Wikipedia on IP ratings). Designing a water-resistant button requires some creativity, and I’ll cover my approach to it in a future blog post.

One useful way to learn about switches is by shopping online (ie DigiKey) and reading the datasheets for the various products. There are literally tens of thousands of products available, which I find quite impressive. I would guess there are two reasons why so many switches exist.

First, switches they are cheap, easy to amass, often easy to swap out, and, I presume, easy to manufacture. When trying switches, designers do not need to think as carefully about the specifications of the switch as they do about other electric components such as transistors. The second reason I think so many products are available is that people (such as myself) naturally confuse the “button” with the “switch.” While buttons seem like simple, dumb components, a button is not a switch. The mentality that a button as a simple topic not worth spending time on goes hand in hand with an unrealistic expectation that a “ready to go” button should be available. The reality, though, is that designing a reliable button can be quite challenging as it integrates with and often requires additional mechanical parts. For instance, I recently took apart my electric shaver and noticed that the “button” component was directly integrated into the plastic body of the shaver; certainly, a company like Digikey couldn’t sell this button without advance knowledge of that particular product’s design. The switch, however, was a standard tactile switch. I argue that a switch, unlike a button, is a clearly defined and “ready to go” component. As a result of the availability of switches and the confusion between buttons and switches, people are eager to try switches that also solve both the button design problem, when what they should probably be doing is designing a button and then swapping out switches that fit into the design.

The last topic on buttons and switches I’ll bring up is that of debounce algorithms. Specifically, when a switch acts on a circuit, say to open or close a circuit, it affects the circuit in a variety of ways. Ideally, we expect a switch simply to open the circuit or close the circuit. In reality, the switch has resistance, current and voltage limits, and will exhibit complicated, probably chaotic, period of instability during state changes. This reality can pose significant problems. For instance, imagine a momentary switch controls the power of a bike light. When the button is pressed and released, the light toggles on. The problem arises in detecting what denoes a “press” event and a “release” event, and debounce algorithms specialize in solving this. Specifically, when a momentary switch is pressed, a metal contact flips into position such that it closes a circuit. During the process of flipping, the contact can close and open the circuit many times within a few milliseconds until it stabilizes in the “closed circuit” state. On release, a similar process may happen. I have not stumbled across research that explores what actually happens to the circuit during the flip, but I imagine it is quite complex and seeping with theoretical mathematics. For practical purposes, we simply need to create algorithms that identify the instability of the switch and use that period to define when the switch is explicitly “pressed” and “released.” There is an abundance of information about debounce algorithms and their implementations available online. Here’s one good article.

And that concludes our survey of bike light components! As previously stated, the primary goal of this post is to present a high level view of how the basic components of a bike light work so we can both gain insights into the types of challenges that these components introduce, and secondly, garner intuition for why different variations components exist. We discussed differe LEDs and challenges of driving them. We also discussed important factors in choosing batteries, particularly Lithium ones. We also exposed some often confused intricacies between buttons and switches. Careful readers will note that I have not covered reflective lens design and materials for lights. I have chosen to skip discussion of reflective materials for the light because I have not done much research into it. I hope this post serves as useful starting point for those undertaking similar projects. Please follow feel free to check out my other posts on this topic, by checking this project’s table of contents!

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