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A chemist explains the science of fireworks

The 2015 Macy's 4th of July Fireworkss are seen along East river from the One World Trade Center Observatory on July 4, 2015 in New York City.
The 2015 Macy's 4th of July Fireworkss are seen along East river from the One World Trade Center Observatory on July 4, 2015 in New York City.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

If you're planning to watch fireworks on the 4th of July, why not brush up on a little science first?

Fireworks have gotten considerably more advanced since the discovery of gunpowder in China more than 1,000 years ago. In the short video below, John Conkling, a chemist at Washington College, explains how modern-day fireworks are made:

The big aerial fireworks we tend to see on New Year's Eve or the 4th of July look roughly like this:

Screen_shot_2014-07-03_at_8.44.38_pm

As Conklin explains, they work in three broad steps:

1) First, the entire aerial shell is shot out of a mortar by lighting the black powder propellant (a mix of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur — that is, gunpowder).

2) Once the shell is launched, the internal time fuse starts burning down as the firework reaches altitude. The fuse then sets off the bursting charge inside the shell — and the firework explodes.

3) The real fun starts when those effect pellets start to burn in the air, producing various colors and effects. These pellets are a combination of fuel and oxygen-rich elements. The colors that result depend on the type of elements used, while the type of fuel determines how hot and how long these pellets burn.

"We produce different colors by using the fact that different chemical elements heated to high temperatures get rid of their energy by emitting very specific wavelengths of light," Conkling explains. Strontium chloride is often used to produce a red color. Sodium silicate is used to produce yellow. Titanium produces those silver sparks.

"Blue is the hardest color to produce with pyrotechnics," Conkling adds. "You need the perfect chemistry." Copper chloride will burn blue, but it will also decompose if it gets too hot, making it incredibly tricky to work with.

Further reading

— A professional explains how to design the perfect fireworks show

— Here's a good history of fireworks. Here's a more detailed step-by-step explanation of how aerial fireworks operate. And here's an extremely complex choreographed fireworks show in Sydney to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Navy's arrival.

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