What Makes Fireworks 'Work'

| 7/1/2015 10:03:00 AM

Country MoonIt’s time again for burgers sizzling on the grill, homemade ice cream, watermelon … and what July Fourth celebration would be complete without fireworks? Those light shows in the sky are taken for granted all too often. Here are some interesting facts behind what causes all the “oohs” and “ahs.”

Fireworks have actually been around since the 7th century, originating in China where they always accompany celebrations such as the Chinese New Year. To this day, China remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.

Technically, fireworks are a special class of pyrotechnic devices that use materials capable of undergoing self-contained and self-sustained chemical reactions for the production of heat, light, gas, smoke and/or sound. The word pyrotechnic stems from the Greek words pyro meaning “fire” and tekhnikos meaning “made by art.” So, fireworks could be referred to as “fire art” with the art produced by the four primary effects of noise, light, smoke and floating materials.

Everyone has probably, at one time or another, been on the receiving end of the floating materials if they were too close to the show. My cousin’s backyard is adjacent to the field where they set off the fireworks each year in Mendon, Michigan. It certainly is spectacular to see the show literally right on top of your seats, but one year we had pieces of debris as large as dinner plates landing on us. OK, that’s a little too close.

Each firework is made up of six different components:

  1. Black powder, which, naturally, is the propellant.

  2. Mortar, which is the outer cylinder chamber made of either plastic or metal short steel pipe with a lifting charge in both.

  3. Stars, which are the actual pyrotechnic compounds that explode and create the various colors and effects.

  4. A shell, which is a hollow sphere made of pasted paper and string. The shell is the part that is packed with the stars.

  5. A bursting charge, which is located in the middle of the shell and used to ignite the firework which catches the outside of the stars on fire and then burn with showers of sparks.

  6. A fuse, which allows a time delay for explosion.

There is quite a science involved in creating the special effects of fireworks. Different elements used to pack the stars produce the various effects. For instance, aluminum creates sparklers, antimony will give glitter effects, calcium deepens the colors, phosphorous gives us glow-in-the-dark effects, titanium will produce silver sparks, and zinc provides all the smoke.

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