The Bright History and Chemistry of Fireworks
On New Year’s Eve, many cities around the world will ring in the new year by illuminating the sky with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics—a marvel of chemistry dating back to ancient China.
In China, around 600 to 900 A.D., the first known fireworks crackled in the sky. Originally created to ward off evil spirits, Chinese alchemists made these illuminating lights by combining saltpeter (potassium nitrate, a type of food preservative), charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, creating an early version of gunpowder. When thrown into a fire, the mix would explode with a loud bang.
Gradually, Chinese gunpowder samples and the chemical formulas used to make fireworks began to spread across the Silk Road to European and Middle Eastern countries, which used fireworks to mark military engagements as well as festive celebrations.
Colorful explosions closer to what we see today at our fireworks displays came in the 1830s, when Italian inventors added metals like strontium, to make red fireworks, and barium, to make green fireworks. From then on, fireworks took on entirely new, vibrant lights and colors.
Today, the typical firework mixture consists of fuel, an oxidizer to provide the oxygen necessary for burning, and metal chlorides, which contain the chloride ion that help make the colors. Various chemical elements produce a wide variety of colors, such as:
- Sodium, as found in common salt, creates a strong yellow color
- Copper creates blue
- Lithium and strontium produce red
- Barium is used to make green
- The element calcium creates orange
Common questions about fireworks:
Who regulates fireworks?
In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates fireworks under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. To protect public health, the CPSC banned the sale of the most dangerous fireworks, such as M-80s and cherry bombs, in the 1960s.
What is in handheld sparklers?
A sparkler is a type of hand-held firework that burns slowly and emits colored flames, sparks and other effects. A sparkler is typically made from a metal wire coated with a mix of potassium perchlorate, titanium or aluminum, and dextrin. Aluminum or magnesium also helps create that familiar white glow.
Are fireworks safe?
Fireworks are synonymous with celebrations of New Year’s Day and Independence Day. Yet, according to the CPSC, the thrill of fireworks can also bring injuries. On average, 250 people go to the emergency room every day with fireworks-related injuries in the month around the July 4th holiday.
CPSC advises that parents closely supervise the use of any fireworks and adds the cautionary warning that sparklers should not be handled by young children.
Do fireworks pollute the environment?
Some fireworks can pollute the environment with debris and smoke. Pyrotechnic scientists have already begun to address some of these issues, by finding new ways to make fireworks that are more environmentally friendly, such as creating compounds that use nitrogen-rich materials or nitrocellulose that produce less smoke.