How do fireworks work? “You light a fuse and they go BOOM” would be the simple answer. You might also receive answers involving gun powder or explosives, but does anyone really know the science behind that M80 your standing dangerously close to?
John Conkling is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Conkling also wrote a textbook called The Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory, so if anyone knows the science behind the 4th of July’s biggest spectacle, it’s him.
The basics: the wonderfully colorful flames you see are all produced by specific chemical mixtures and the sparks are small pieces of fuel that continue to burn in the air. Bu, again, those are just the basics. Really impress your friends by talking chemicals: like how every pyrotechnic composition has a chemical that is oxygen rich, or an oxidizer; potassium nitrate is used to make black powder and potassium perchlorate is used in a lot of color compositions. When you see those bright reds in the sky, let them know that’s strontium chloride doing its job.
And that’s only the beginning. Watch the short video below to increase your fireworks chemical and ballistic knowledge. And if you’re worried you’ll forget some of the specifics, don’t worry, most of your friends will be a few drinks deep by the time the show starts! Your knowledge will still be as impressive as the show in the sky.
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