Want to Be Set for the Apocalypse? Make a DIY Solar-Powered Portable USB Charger!

We often share the creative projects we’re working on in our #random Slack channel. Our own Jill Tutterrow was working on a solar-powered portable USB charger and even gave a presentation on it at a recent in-person. We interviewed Jill about this cool project.

What inspired you to work on this project?

A lot of my coworkers create things that are techy interesting. I just felt inspired to do something myself.

Why did you choose to make a solar-powered USB Charger?

I wanted to make something useful. I use a lot of gadgets, and I can use all the charging devices I can get. I have my Go-Tcha, a little device you can sync with the Pokemon Go app—it catches Pokemon for you.

Plus I have two no-name phones that I tether to my iPhone, so when we’re doing raids in Pokemon, I can sign in to my daughter and her boyfriend’s accounts, and put them in the raid with me. Then I have a full raid team, with just the two of us. Is that cheating? :) I also have a portable fan, because I get hot.

I thought this charger was something that could be useful. I just wanted to be nerdy and try something different. My idea was to use an Altoid box, and attach the solar panel to the inside top of the Altoid tin. I’d open it so it could charge, and then close it for transport.


What did you learn on this project?

I thought it would be much simpler. It’s turned out to be more of an engineering project, rather than a nerdy project (at least, what I think of as nerdy in my field.) Because it is so much engineering-type stuff, rather than just techy stuff, it was a challenge. I had to do a bunch of research about what it takes to build it.

I learned more about wiring, and positives and negatives. I know all about wiring from starting a million cars in my life, but when it comes to electrical circuits, it’s a little different. You don’t clamp it on and go. Just how all of it works together, as a whole, was a learning experience. All the wiring slowed the project down a bit. I had to figure that all out: how the solar panel and the battery panel connects to the circuit, and how they all are important to one another, and how the energy flows. I’ve never even worked with a little circuit board!

I learned how to solder. I had seen soldering before, and thought, “Yeah that’s easy,” but it wasn’t. No. Soldering is difficult. Especially when you’re dealing with super tiny parts that are very close together on that circuit board. It’s a tight fit. This was a tough one especially to start with—soldering something big would have been easier. You have to solder the wires to everything: to the solar panel, to the USB converter and the battery pack to the USB converter. The USB converter is in the middle, and you have solar panel from one end, and battery pack on the other end.

I didn’t know what I didn't know until I got into it, and then I realized how much I didn’t know. It was a lot of mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. YouTube is helpful. I don’t know how I’d build anything I build without it.

Did you have to make any course corrections along the way?

After I had it all put together, I discovered it wasn’t producing as much voltage as I would have liked. It powered, it just wasn’t powering fast enough. It took 30 minutes to get enough of a charge to get just a few percentages on the phone. Maybe some of what I researched on YouTube was older information, from a time when devices didn’t require as much power. We didn’t used to have 200 apps on our phones running all the time.

So I needed to add more power to it, more voltage. My original battery pack had two AA batteries, so I decided to try doubling the voltage, with four AAA batteries. I didn’t know AA and AAA batteries have the same output—they aren’t very dissimilar in voltage. To make this work I had to to rip off the solder for the AA battery pack and redo it for the AAA battery pack. Once I got everything soldered on and tested it, now it charges just as fast as a regular phone charger.

What was your most satisfying moment during this project?

Plugging the phone in, and seeing the little lightning bolt come on! In the apocalypse, I'm set!

Where did you buy your materials and how much did you spend?

Everything, like everything I get in life is from Amazon and Walmart. The Altoid tin I happened to have lying around. I spent about $40 total.

How much time did it take?

Between research, shopping and constructing, at least 15 hours.

What will you make next?

I’m gonna make a light that looks like a Minecraft block. It’s very different, not nearly as complex. I’m excited about that! It’s more jigsawing, painting, that sort of thing.

Wanna see how she did it?

See Jill’s presentation on her solar-powered portable USB charger.


Ivan Stegic

Ivan Stegic

Words that describe Ivan: Relentlessly optimistic. Kind. Equally concerned with client and employee happiness. Bowtie lover. Physicist. Ethical. Lighthearted and cheerful. Finds joy in the technical stuff. Inspiring. Loyal. Hires smart, curious and kind employees who want to create more good in the world. His favorite things right now: the TEN7 podcast and becoming the next Björn Borg.