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Developed nearly two millennia ago in ancient China, fireworks are increasingly used in cultural celebrations around the world and enjoyed by nearly all ages. As one of the most entertaining forms of chemistry, fireworks appeal to our senses of sight and sound, offering a staggering variety of colors, sizes, shapes, sounds, and so on. We love to watch fireworks because they take our breath away with their magnificence and mystery.

However it is not all fun and games. The business of fireworks (and the field of pyrotechnics in general) is very serious since they should be made as safe as possible to use and also environmentally friendly. Beyond fireworks, other pyrotechnics are found in all kinds of entertainment, like in concerts, movies, and more serious applications for defense and security (e.g., safety measures like flares and signal lights).

What are fireworks made of?

Early fireworks were quite dangerous and were used for protection rather than for celebrations, and hardly resemble the ones we are now familiar with.

It all began back in Ancient China with the invention of gunpowder, which was created from a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Eventually, as new developments were made to increase the safety and predictability of using these early fireworks, experimentation with colors began and people started using them more for nonviolent purposes. Now there is an entire industry devoted to the development of all kinds of fireworks for consumers and professionals alike.

Learn more about the history of fireworks in the links below:

A firework, or aerial shell as it is also known, basically consists of three main parts aside from the housing: gunpowder and an igniter to make the rocket explode, and inside of the transported capsule on the top there are small garniture pods usually called «stars» (despite being shaped like spheres or cylinders) that include various chemicals for the desired effects. Stars consist of a colorant, a fuel, an oxidizer (oxygen providing substance, e.g., chlorates or nitrates), and a binder to hold the ingredient mixture together in a compact briquette.

The industry has spent a significant amount of time in development to make fireworks explode in shapes like stars and stripes, hearts, or even more complex forms like a cartoon figure, or letters and numbers if timed correctly.

Cross-sectional diagram of a firework capsule filled with star garnitures (72) and igniter (70). [1]

Forming a rainbow of colors

The vibrant colors of fireworks come from the combustion of metal ions which make up to 20% of the components. Metals have been used to color flames even before the invention of modern fireworks (e.g. Bengal fire). Chemically speaking, these metal ions change their electronic state by heating (addition of energy) and then going back to a lower energy state before emitting light of a certain color.

Table 1. List of metals used in pyrotechnics and their colors [2].

Color

Metal

Example compounds

Red

Strontium (intense red)

SrCO3 (strontium carbonate)

Lithium (medium red)

Li2CO3 (lithium carbonate)

LiCl (lithium chloride)

Orange

Calcium

CaCl2 (calcium chloride)

Yellow

Sodium

NaNO3 (sodium nitrate)

Green

Barium

BaCl2 (barium chloride)

B3N3 (boron nitride)

Blue

Copper halides

CuCl2 (copper chloride), at low temperature

Indigo

Cesium

CsNO3 (cesium nitrate)

Violet

Potassium

KNO3 (potassium nitrate)

Rubidium (violet-red)

RbNO3 (rubidium nitrate)

Gold

Charcoal, iron, or carbon black

 

White

Titanium, aluminum, beryllium, or magnesium powders

 

Very prominent here is the yellow color from sodium which is also seen in older street lightbulbs in some countries. Unfortunately, the most vibrant colors formed are also the most toxic for the environment, like strontium (red) and barium (green). These contaminants can be measured in the air, water, and even in the soil—but more on that later.

Find out more information about how fireworks get their colors in the links below:

Safety first

Safety is always a critical issue when discussing fireworks, whether concerning their construction, their use, or their storage. Too many serious accidents have happened over the years involving fireworks.

Learn more about how to handle fireworks in a safe manner here:

Among one of the largest fireworks disasters recorded in Europe was in Enschede (The Netherlands) in 2000. This explosion occurred in the warehouse of the S.E. Fireworks factory, which was located in the center of a residential area as the city grew and continued to build homes around it. An entire neighborhood was razed and the largest of the explosions was felt up to 30 kilometers away.

Because of this incident, sales of larger fireworks in most European countries is only allowed outdoors. Accumulating fireworks at home in preparation for celebrations should be avoided at least in confined environments like basements or apartments. It is better to store them in a ventilated shed or car parking to avoid problems in the case of a fire. Also do not store fireworks for long periods, since most of commercial fireworks are meant to be used within 3–6 months after production because the paper contents can get humid, ionic substances can dissolve and recrystallize, and therefore the likelihood of a failure increases.

In the event of a firework failure: Never have a look immediately! Wait at least 15 minutes at a proper distance and then use a tool to confine it afterwards—never touch it with your bare hands, especially when dealing with exploding fireworks or rockets.

Having said this, fireworks have integrated some safety features over the last several years to work more properly and reliably. For instance, the propellants have been modified from containing black powder to using technology from rockets such as plasticizers for better burning performance during launch, also resulting in less smoke and dust on the ground. A dedicated chain of reactions has to be followed, otherwise it will burn in a harmless way.

Knowledge is power: Prevent accidents with proper analytical testing

In order to help prevent fireworks accidents such as the one in Enschede and countless others, it is crucial to closely monitor different quality parameters including the water content of paper-based fireworks, grain size of the metal particles, and the purity and composition of the colorant, just to mention a few. Adequate quality control provides an entertaining, but safe fireworks experience even in the hands of the general public, when proper protocols are followed.

Metrohm offers several analytical technologies and related applications for this area of research. Analyses can be performed for a wide variety of substances and quality parameters as well as trace materials in the laboratory, on the street, and in the air either via wet chemical methods (e.g., Karl Fischer titration, ion chromatography, voltammetry) or spectroscopic techniques (e.g., near-infrared spectroscopy [NIRS] and Raman spectroscopy).

As mentioned earlier, moisture is an important quality parameter when discussing the safety of explosive materials. Metrohm offers two different techniques for accurate analysis of water content in a variety of matrices which are outlined in the following blog posts.

When it comes to determining the individual concentrations of the main constituents, some wet chemical techniques really stand out. Suppressed anion chromatography is ideal for measuring the ionic components of e.g., firecracker powder, other explosive material, and even in explosion residues for forensic purposes. Coupling an ion chromatograph to a mass spectrometer (IC-MS) opens up even more analysis possibilities. Read more about these studies (and more) by downloading our free Application Notes.

The use of several different metal salts to create the vibrant colors of fireworks can be beautiful but also harmful to our health and that of our environment. Voltammetry (VA) is an electrochemical method suitable for the determination of trace and ultratrace concentrations of heavy metals and other electrochemically active substances. Not only is VA excellent at determining these substances in the laboratory, but also in the field such as for measuring the after effects of a fireworks display or an undesired event. Check out our selection of VA instruments and applications on our website.

Spectroscopic techniques like Raman can help to determine the presence of dangerous explosive materials even when keeping a safe distance by using different instrument attachments. Read our free White Paper about how to use MIRA DS from Metrohm Raman for the purpose of identifying explosives safely.

Environmentally friendly fireworks – a contradiction?

Although fireworks are a very spectacular form of entertainment, there is quite an environmental impact after big cultural events or national holidays. The general atmospheric pollution after a fireworks display has been set off can be seen in an increase of dust and smoke, but also heavy metal content in the air as most contemporary fireworks use these for coloring.

The unburnt material still contains a significant amount of heavy metals. After falling to the ground, this material can dissolve and enter the ground water after it rains. Plastics materials that covered the fireworks for safety reasons are found again as broken shell shrapnel or as microplastics. The combustion of the compounds inside the fireworks leads to increased air pollution in form of aerosols that can be measured and evaluated resulting in heavy metals in the air, fine dust, and even nanoparticles which are extremely harmful for our lungs.

Metrohm Process Analytics has developed the 2060 MARGA (Monitor for AeRosols and Gases in ambient Air) which is used by official agencies and research bodies worldwide to monitor the air quality fully autonomously. This instrument is based on the analytical technique of ion chromatography and can be used as a dedicated continuous air monitoring device that can be left unattended for several weeks at a time, or as a research instrument that can be used for other projects when not monitoring the air quality.

Learn more about the 2060 MARGA and its capabilities in our blog post.

To find out more about the use of Metrohm instruments to monitor the air quality, check out this selection of peer-reviewed articles.

A new «green» firework generation is being developed for both professional and indoor use to try to minimize the heavy metal content and also reduce aerosol forming agents. This makes them more suitable for indoor pyrotechnic shows and for movie production. In regular outdoor shows (e.g. at theme parks), the gunpowder for transport of the capsule has mostly been substituted with an air pressure gun mechanism.

A significant amount of research has gone into substituting heavy metal-based colorants with more environmentally benign substances by increasing the luminosity of lithium derivatives by substituting them for strontium, or by using boron instead of barium or chlorinated compounds.

Finally, the plastic parts commonly used to surround fireworks are planned to be substituted by microcrystalline cellulose mixtures with better plasticizing binders. This leads to a similar stability compared to the current plastic materials, but the cellulose-based containers burn up completely and do not leave harmful materials scattered on the ground.

The future of fireworks shows

All safety measures increase the joy of fireworks not only during, but also after the event—being green and being safe. Foretelling the future, some of these celebrations may now use a cadre of lighted drones in a choreographed dance. This has been happening more steadily as drones fall in price and increase in their handling and programming capabilities. However, fireworks have already been with us for a couple of thousand years, and probably will not disappear any time soon.

Download our free Application Notes

and White Papers related to explosives and propellants

Post written by Dr. Norbert Mayr (Ph.D. in the field of HEDM, pyrotechnics, propellants, and oxidizers), Marketing Specialist & Product Training at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

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