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To Wrap Up the Fourth of July, Here’s Some of the Chemistry Behind Fireworks

fireworks on new years eve

The 4th of July is that great time in the summer for families to come together and celebrate our Independence Day with barbeques, parties by the swimming pool, and, of course, fireworks.

There’s something magical about watching the night sky explode into colors like red, blue and green, hearing the big booms as sparks twinkle down on the excited crowds below.

Fireworks, in very simple terms, make people happy, says John Conkling, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Washington College and author of a textbook on pyrotechnics. To show you just how fireworks actually work, we have a video here to teach you all about the science of pyrotechnics.

Via CBS News, here’s some more information about how fireworks work. Every firework needs the same three ingredients to get off the ground:

  1. First, you need an oxidizer, or an oxygen rich compound, to act as an ignition source. Most firework technicians use potassium perchlorate or potassium nitrate which are used in black powder compositions.
  2. Next, you’ll need fuel to add to your heat source so the firework can have enough energy to get up into the sky. Fuel sources include things like sulfur, charcoal, aluminum or magnesium powder. The correct fuel ratio will determine just how long and how brightly the firework will at show time.
  3. Finally, you need chemicals that produce very specific colors when burned. The big red colors you see are produced by the chemical strontium chloride. Greens are usually made with barium acetate and yellows are made with sodium silicate. The blue fireworks, which are the trickiest pyrotechnically to get just right, are made from copper oxide.

As you can see already, there’s a lot of chemistry going on behind scenes. As Conkling explains, “Without chemistry, you couldn’t have the burning mixtures. Without the burning mixtures, you wouldn’t have fireworks.”

The chemicals are packaged into a cardboard, snow-cone shaped shell with a black powder propellant in the bottom (This is what launches the firework into the air). The propellant also lights a hidden fuse in the bottom that’s timed to detonate another pocket of black powder once the firework gets high enough into the air. This second pocket, or bursting charge, is surrounded by marble sized effect pellets filled with the chemicals mentioned above. All you need then is a mortar to launch it from, a primary fuse and the will to light it up!

One of our most notable founding fathers, John Adams, once wrote to his wife about an idea for how the fledgling country of America would celebrate its independence from Great Britain. He wrote that citizens would celebrate with, “Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Today, his vision of celebration has become a 4th of July tradition, celebrated coast to coast for millions of Americans to enjoy.

So, from all of us here at the Dream It Do It Nebraska team, we hope you had a Happy 4th of July!

photo credit: Anirudh Koul via photopin cc

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