Joule thief circuit powering a compact fluorescent lightbulb

Following the tips outlined below, you can use the joule thief circuit to power a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) using just some AA batteries. The approach below is popularly known as Jeanna's light. In the photos below you can see I've put it in a soda can and I'm using it to read by!

Joule thief powering a compact fluorescent lightbulb in a soda
      can sitting on a table.
Reading using a compact fluorescent lightbulb powered using a
      joule thief circuit.
Inside the joule thief and CFL with all parts connected and exposed.

How to make the joule thief circuit for power a CFL

Below is the circuit diagram for what worked for me. The trickiest part was getting the right windings on the ferrite toroidal core. It's only around a 1 1/4" (3.5 cm) outer diameter toroid so it had to be very efficient while not having the insulation on the coils breakdown from the high voltage.

Circuit diagram for Jeanna's light variation of joule thief circuit
Circuit diagram for Jeanna's light variation of joule thief circuit.

The normal joule thief circuit has only two coils, but as you can see in the above circuit diagram, this one has three. That third coil and the CFL are the only additions to the regular joule thief circuit. There's also one change and that's to change the normal low power transistor for a power transistor.

Cutting open (or gutting) the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL)

The only part of the CFL you need is the spiral fluorescent tube and the wires that are connected to it. Inside the base of the CFL are a whole bunch of electronics parts which you can discard or reuse for something else. Sometimes you can just pry it open using a sharp edge, like a knife, but usually I have to cut it open. I use hack saw for this, but most any saw will do (see photos below.) Make many shallow cuts all around the circumference. Don't cut too deeply otherwise you may cut the wires inside shorter than you'd like to. Just cut the case.

Cutting open CFL.
Cutting open compact fluorescent light for joule thief.
Make shallow cuts.
Cutting open compact fluorescent light for joule thief.
The electronic parts.
Opening a CFL and seeing the electronics.
Back of circuit board.
Openning a CFL and seeing the back of the circuit board.

Once you've cut the case in two, pry it open as much as you can. Depending on where you made your cut, you'll either see electronic parts like the third photo above, or the back of a circuit board like in the fourth photo.

You want to get at the area just behind the tube. There are two pairs of wires there and you want to cut those wires as near to the circuit board as possible, leaving as long a length as possible still connected to the tube. In the first photo below I'm using a knife to slice the wires and in the second photo it's much easier to get at them and just cut them with scissors or wire cutters.

Cutting wires using a knife.
Cutting wires going to the CFL tube using a knife.
Cutting with wire cutters.
Cutting wires going to the CFL tube using wire cutters.
A gutted CFL...
A gutted CFL with just the tube and wires and no electronics.
... and another.
A gutted CFL with just the tube and wires and no electronics.

And the last two photos on the right above are examples of the end results, what are often referred to as gutted CFLs.

The finished coil on the toroid core for the joule thief 
      powering a CFL.

Winding the coils

The coils are wound on a toroid core. You'd think a ferrite core would be best but an iron powder core works quite well, as in my case. Most of the cores you scavenge from old equipment are iron powder cores.

The first coil is the one with many, many turns. It's the red one in the above diagram. I fit around 256 turns. Keep each winding next to each other with as little gap as possible and as few overlaps as possible. Use a small diameter, enamel coated wire so you can fit as many turns as possible. I used 30 gauge (AWG) magnet wire. To make it easy to wind, first wrap the wire around a stick of some sort, as shown in the photos below.

Toroid core and winding stick.
Toroid core and winding stick for making joule thief coil.
Lowering stick down...
Lowering the coil winding stick through the toroid core for the
      joule thief.
... and out the bottom.
Pulling the coil winding stick out the bottom of the toroid core
      for the joule thief.

Stop winding when you have about 1/8" or a few millimeters gap between the first and current winding on the inside of the toroid (see photos below.) This is because there will be a high voltage between these two ends and the enamel insulation isn't enough to prevent voltage breakdown between them. Instead, solder on some wire with thicker insulation. I used red 24 AWG plastic coated wire. Do this for both ends and continue winding both ends until they meet. Wrap the end with tape to help with insulation and provide a flat winding surface for the next coil (see photo below.)

The gap between the two ends.
The gap between the two ends in the first coil for the joule
      thief.
Soldering on wire with thicker insulation.
Soldering wire with thicker insulation on the ends of the 
      first joule thief coil.
Finished 1st coil, covered in tape.
Finished first coil for the joule thief, covered in tape.

Then, as shown in the first two photos below, wind 10 turns of a plastic insulated wire on top of the first coil. I used black 24 gauge (AWG) plastic coated wire. Start winding on one side of where the first coil ended and end on the other side. Wind in the same or opposite direction as the first coil. It works either way.

Winding second coil.
Winding the second coil on the joule thief toroid core.
Second coil done.
Finished second coil on the joule thief toroid core.
Third coil and done!
Third and last coil on the joule thief toroid core.

Lastly, as shown in last photo above, wind 5 turns of a plastic insulated wire on top of the second coil. I used blue 24 gauge (AWG) plastic coated wire. Again, start winding on one side of where the first coil ended and end on the other side. Wind in the same direction as the second coil.

Wrap everything well with tape so nothing comes loose.

Assembling all the other parts

The first few steps involve attaching components to things before wiring them up.



Cutting a bottle to put it all in.


The two bottle parts.
Hot glued transistor and potentiometer to battery case.

Taping coils to other part of battery case.
Screwing battery case closed.
Holes for potentiometer and switch.
Checking the fit.
Checking the fit.

The following photos show connecting both ends of the blue coil and one end of the black coil. Be careful which ends go where. Doing this wrong is the most common mistake. Follow the diagram above closely.

Blue coil's ends are soldered to the potentiometer and to the transistor's base pin.

Using nut and bolt to attach one end of the black coil to one of the transistor's case holes.

Battery negative is soldered to the transistor's emitter pin.

Next come the connections to the switch.



A red wire is soldered to the potentiometer...
... then that red wire and the remaining black coil's wire are soldered to one leg of the switch.

Battery positive is soldered to the other leg of the switch.

Next comes soldering the compact fluorescent light's (CFL's) wires to the red coil. There are two pairs of CFL wires. One pair goes to one end of the red coil and the other pair goes to the other end of the red coil. The polarities don't matter here; either end of the red coil goes to either pair. Note that on some CFLs I couldn't solder to the wires. Perhaps I wasn't using enough heat, though I was using a 150 watt soldering gun. Just be aware that you may have to connect some other way.

Soldering one end of the red coil to two wires of the CFL...
... and then soldering the other end of the red coil to the other two CFL wires.
Everything connected together.

Some photos of the joule thief powered CFL in use

Finished!
In a soda can.
Reading by its light.
Giving light outdoors.

Video - How to Make Joule Thief Light a CFL - Jeanna's Light

This is a video I made showing step-by-step how to make this joule thief circuit, including the tricky coils, along with some demonstrations.

Video - Fun with Joule Thief Powering a CFL

In this is a video I do various measurements of the circuit: voltage, light brightness, ... plus how to use a PNP transistor with the joule thief circuit instead of the NPN transistor.

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