The Basics about Fireworks

At some point, everyone has a chance to be exposed to the awing nature of fireworks. As children, we may only see them on the television while we watch a New Years celebration, snuggled up with our parents. We continue to be exposed through our lifetimes, perhaps one day as adults partying under the stars on the Fourth of July. But no matter the age difference, reality seems to escape with each colorful explosion. The pleasure alone lies in the magnificent bursts before our eyes.

I remember myself sitting on the couch, between my mom and my sister, watching all the bright designs flashing through the air on New Years. Well, they were New Years parades in Australia; I never was able to stay awake until it was midnight in Arizona. It was a tradition I looked forward to every year, although I wished that one day I would be able to stay awake long enough to see them in person. Eventually, as I grew older, my family would crowd into the bedroom on the west side of the house and watch them from the window. It continued to be great fun and I never seemed to be bored of the event. There remains a gap in my memory where I cannot seem to recall any fireworks in my life; however, I have been strongly reassured otherwise. Perhaps this blankness intensified my most recent experience, although it was magnificent in of itself.

This past summer, my brother’s friend’s family and my family drove out towards Thunderbird to watch fireworks for the Fourth of July. All the “kids”, including myself, got up on the roof of their SUV. It was not like anything else I could remember. The fireworks themselves were normal, nothing unique. However, their mysterious nature kept us all watching and applauding for the final finale. Looking back, as I watched the expressions of awe on the smallest of the bunch created a nostalgic feeling as I remembered my own early experiences. Fireworks, a portal to another world.

And this proved to be true. Fireworks are a door to chemistry and elementary explosions. They originated in China about 2,000 years ago. Its discovery was unlike anything that would be expected today. Its creation was completely accidental a Chinese cook happened to mix charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter and enclose it in a bamboo tube. It later exploded (History). This was considered to be almost magical, but today, scientists have researched and determined how these explosions occur.

Today, fireworks are enclosed in paper tubes with a fuse to light powder inside. The most common powder is called black powder, or gunpowder. It is a composition of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate; it is very similar to the original solution hundreds of years ago. However, occasionally other ingredients, such as aluminum, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust will be added to create a visually appealing effects and a wide variety of colors (Brain).

But how do they work? Marshall Brain provides an easy explanation for a related item, the sparkler. Inside, the potassium nitrate works as an oxidizer, charcoal or sulfur as the fuel, and a sugar or starch for the binder. He says, “Mixed with water, these chemicals form a slurry that can be coated on a wire (by dipping) or poured into a tube. Once it dries, you have a sparkler. When you light it, the sparkler burns from one end to the other (like a cigarette). The fuel and oxidizer are proportioned, along with the other chemicals, so that the sparkler burns slowly rather than exploding like a firecracker”.

Another common, yet widely unknown, type of explosive is in liquid form. We have been greatly affected by them, without realizing it. “On August 10, 2006, authorities in Great Britain announced that they had arrested several people in connection with a plot to attack airplanes with liquid explosives. The attackers planned to disguise the explosives as ordinary liquids and smuggle them aboard. For this reason, authorities in both the United States and Great Britain warned all passengers that liquids would not be allowed in carry-on luggage until the crisis passed. The ban on liquids included hair spray, shampoo and beverages – items people travel with all the time”(Wilson).
A common liquid explosive, nitroglycerin, is an excellent example of how this category works. Nitroglycerin consists of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. Any physical shocks create a chain reaction that breaks the molecules down into carbon dioxide, water, and oxygen. When the bonds between the atoms break, they release an enormous amount of energy in a short amount of time (Wilson).

Explosives and explosions surround us today. While no one could have imagined that fireworks could be so closely related to dangerous products, such as nitroglycerin, they still remain magical. For many people, including myself, they will remain a unique and special part of life. However, now, they can be explained by an ever growing force; science.

Works Cited
Brain, Marshall. How Fireworks Work. HowStuffWorks, Inc. 2007. 2 Dec. 2007.
History of Fireworks. B.J. Alan Company Inc. 2007. 2 Dec. 2007 .
Wilson, Tracy V. How Liquid Explosives Work. HowStuffWorks, Inc. 2007. 2 Dec. 2007 .