Bursting into Color

Bursting into Color

Every year here in the States, we celebrate independence by lighting something on fire. Thanks to the science of pyrotechnics, and care, this can be somewhat safe, but the interesting part about fireworks isn't how much noise we can make with gunpowder. It's all about the colour.

I was surprised to learn that the burst of light and colour is actually the contents of a firework cooling down. When heated, the chemicals involved take on a lot of energy, and when cooling, they release that energy while shining brightly. The base ingredients are black powder, an oxidiser, and a fuel source. The oxidiser provides a higher amount of oxygen than the surrounding that air so that the firework can burn adequately. To get a sort of hands-on idea of what goes on inside the firework, sparklers will show you best.

fireworks burst

Acheiving Colour

Pyrotechnic chemists don't want their explode. Although the quick bursts of fireworks shows might suggest a fast burning, it's actually slow burning fireworks that show the best colour. Working with certain chemicals brings out a desired colour. For example, magnesium makes white, strontium makes red, copper makes blue, barium makes green, sodium makes yellow, and calcium makes orange. Just as with paints or dyes, mixing these chemicals can produce a blending of colour, like copper and barium combined to make turqoise and strontium and copper will make purple. The chemicals are produced in pellets about the size of sugar cubes, and blending them together requires an understanding their different igniting points, but the firework can be designed to accomodate for just that.

Adding a sparkling effect to fireworks requires aluminium, and depending on how hot the aluminium will burn, they can appear as gold or silver, gold being hotter. Magnesium and aluminium can produce the same brightly burning effect. Making two rows of chemicals, instead of blending them, makes a double ring. To make specific designs, like a star, heart, or even someone's face, the pellets are glued to paper arranged in the desired shape.   fireworks arsenal

Whether you watch a fireworks show on television or on blankets in a field, just remember that there's even more to wonder about while watching in awe.

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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 Comments


AWESOME! I love fireworks & the chemistry behind them.

Thanks, ruecian!


i'm so glad you wrote this. while we were watching this year i said, "i really wonder how they get them to do that - changing colours and all"

our little town had the best fireworks i can ever remember in my life this year. it was truly awesome. (and i don't use that word lightly)


Wha wha? 0_o "Pyrotechnic chemists don’t want their explode. " - delete this comment once that line's been explained.. thanks.


urbanlatinfemale: Fireworks that produce colours are colourful because proper engineering allows for adequate heating to the chemical pellets inside the firework. If the firework explodes because of the black powder, the chemical pellets would be wasted, and little to no colour would burst from it. The colour of the fireworks comes from the energy the chemical pellets absorb from heat, and their giving off the energy when cooling is what makes for the brilliantly coloured light. There are rockets or mortars that are designed for pure noise, but they don't contain colour components.
I hope that explains it.


this is a bit late, but better late then never, yeah? i saw lots of fireworks on the 3rd and 4th, and these days, most of them can really dazzle me. it's neat to know how they get them to do the things they do, though.

here's a brief synopsis of the many colours i saw in the sky this Independence Day. The most common, at least...
fireworks display

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