What Makes Fireworks ‘Work’

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It’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.

I am always amazed at how each type of firework has its own pattern and color. Manufacturers control these visual effects by how each explosive is “packed” at the factory. Different colors are obtained by the mixture of special chemicals, mainly metal salts and metal oxides, which are packed into each handmade firework. When these particles are heated, the atoms of each element in the mix absorbs energy causing the mix to rearrange from a low energy state to a higher one. When these pieces plummet back down to a low energy state, the excess energy is emitted as light. The amount of energy emitted determines the color of the light we see.

Creating the different patterns is a lot less technical than dealing with the colors. When fireworks explode, the stars throw the elements out in a pattern. If they are packed in the shell in a star or happy face pattern, for example, they maintain that shape in the sky as they are thrown from the shell. Actually, each shape has its own unique name. They are known as the Peony, Horsetail, Fish, Chrysanthemum and a host of other official names instead of “the ones that do that shooty thing” or “the ones that scream.”

Any firework display is breathtaking but, like most other things, some are more impressive than others. Last November, the small town of Sogue, Norway, set a new world’s record for the most fireworks ignited during a single coordinated display. The show paid tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. Can you imagine 540,382 individual firework effects spanning a 90-minute show? That had to be the show of shows!

As much as I love this time of year and watching the spectaculars, there is a part of me that dreads the season because every year you always hear of someone getting seriously hurt by these blasts of light. They may look like strictly entertainment, but they are still best left for the professionals. As with anything, there can be malfunctions with them igniting at the wrong time, causing serious injury. Debris has also been known to land on flammable material, causing fires. Even with this said, there are still many individuals who like to set off their own shows.

Still, others thrive on danger. There is a new fad called pyrotechnic skydiving. Fastrax, an organization based in Ohio, hires skydivers who strap fireworks to their legs. They jump at an altitude of 13,500 feet and fall at 120 miles per hour. They press a button on their chest to set off the fireworks, which resembles a meteor. Never mind that they are jumping at night, but they also must jump perfectly to avoid sparks igniting their parachutes. Anyone looking for a thrill, this definitely has to be the ultimate.

So, this year between all the “oohs” and “ahs,” will I think of all these facts on fireworks? Probably not, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the show.

Fireworks over Forest Park in St. Louis Photo: Fotolia/zachdalin