The Chemistry of Fireworks

5th November 2015

Chemicals

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“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot…” No, don’t worry… I’m not about to drop a history lesson about Guy Fawkes and his gunpowder plot. However, 5th of November is still a very celebrated day in British culture, which stemmed from a foiled terrorist plot in 1605.

It’s rather strange, when you think about it, to celebrate a terrorist attempt, but looking deeper into the reason we enjoy fireworks so much, maybe it’s got nothing to do with Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, but more so just the pure enjoyment we get from fireworks? Lets face it, the majority of people love fireworks, the colours, the noise, seeing the light exploding in the night sky – it sends chills down your spine. It’s no surprise that the firework industry is a booming market, with an average spend of £40m per year on fireworks. They look pretty, they sound epic, and with the rarity of fireworks, they’re an extremely exciting event – but how do Fireworks work? What gives them the colourful and extravagant explosions – let’s explore the chemistry of fireworks.

The Chemical Components of Fireworks

Everything you see at a firework display is carefully engineered to precision. The arrangement of the firework ‘shell’ has to be extremely precise in order for it to be deemed as safe as possible, without this, the fireworks would be unstable and unsafe to use. The explosions, the colour, the deployment of the fireworks are all chemically manufactured and each explosion and colour flare is a chemical reaction, put together through a very specific assortment of chemicals. Without chemistry, you wouldn’t have fireworks. Every firework you see has at least one chemical that is oxygen rich (oxidiser) this could be Potassium Nitratewhich is used to make black powder, Potassium Perchlorate, used in many colour compositions, Strontium Nitrate, is an oxygen rich chemicals but the strontium being in there also produces a red flame colour.

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An assortment of chemicals used in fireworks.

In order to achieve the explosive effect, you need to add a fuel to the equation, a number of these are used in fireworks but the main ones consist of Sulfur, Charcoal, Aluminum Powder and Magnesium Powder – the fuel is carefully altered to get the perfect balance between a heat output and burning rate. Adjusting these elements allows firework manufacturers to provide the correct intensity of explosion. Without adjusting this factor, the fireworks could be too explosive, or not explosive enough.

It’s clear to see and understand why fireworks are as exciting as they are, but only when you can completely understand the chemical components and true engineering that goes into the development of fireworks, can you understand just how impressive of a spectacle it is. From all of us at ReAgent we truly hope that you have a fantastic bonfire night, and stay safe! 

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