Published: July 3, 2017

Stemming from July 4, 1776, Independence Day symbolizes the United States’ birth. Celebrated annually on this date, American families gather for afternoon barbecues, indulging themselves with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, pasta salad, casseroles, watermelon, and desserts. However, another practice occurs on Fourth of July that is common for other celebrations and occasions in most cultures worldwide: fireworks. So…just how are those explosive wonders made? Let’s find out.

The Science

No surprises here – the conception of the firework was simply derived from chemistry’s Combustion Theory. In order to construct a successful firework, six key ingredients must be present:

  • a fuel material
  • an oxidizing agent
  • a reducing agent
  • a regulator
  • a coloring material
  • a binding agent

While Vortex products have not yet assisted in the direct manufacturing of fireworks, our valves have handled many raw materials used in their production.

Fuel Materials

The most common material used to fuel fireworks is charcoal. Scientifically, the ignition of fuel is basic in concept, but complex in understanding. In short, a firework expels itself from the ground as a result of many chemical reactions. Located at the base of a firework is an oxidizer. This structure is what provides a firework with a direct path. When a firework is ignited, the fuel material begins to lose electrons as they travel toward atoms in the oxidizer. The electron-charged atoms generate a reaction that reduces the oxidizer, which causes the oxidizer to also reject the atoms and allow them to pass through. The atoms and fuel materials bond to create a combustible compound. When ignited, the compound liquefies and creates a pressurized vapor which expels through the back end of a firework to energize it for lift-off.

Oxidizing Agents

Necessary to ensure the firework’s internal contents can burn and combust, commonly sourced oxidizing agents include nitrates, chlorates, and perchlorates. While the chemistry behind each material is intricate, chlorates are the most effective oxidizing agent in firework manufacturing. The concept is that unlike nitrates and perchlorates, chlorates retain the perfect amount of oxygen at the point of explosion, which creates the most impressive combustion. Alternatively, perchlorates retain even more oxygen but have improved chemical stability, making them less likely to explode, and nitrates utilize only one-third of their oxygen potential, which creates an underwhelming explosion.

Reducing Agents

Similar to a hot air balloon, reducing agents are necessary to produce hot gasses that allow the firework vertical travel. The most common materials used as reducing agents are sulphur and charcoal. When ignited, these materials react with oxygen to create sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide, respectively, to further energize the firework’s movement.

Regulators

Made from various metals, regulators are essential to firework safety. As the name suggests, by adding trace amounts of metal to the firework’s internal chemical mix, the speed of the explosive reaction can be regulated, which allows a slower burn and thus, a delayed combustion. In short, regulators are a firework’s most important component because they are the difference between “bombs bursting in air,” and “bombs bursting at your feet.”

Coloring Agents

It’s a little-known fact that in order to create different colored fireworks, different chemicals must be added to the firework’s “ingredients.” The following chart describes what chemicals are used to generate each firework color:

Just like paints or dyes, different-colored chemicals can be mixed to create another color, or to create multi-colored fireworks.

To generate the colors, the chemicals reach high temperatures as they burn in the explosion. The high temperature generates HV light energy, thus allowing spectators to see color. But do you know which firework color is the most challenging to achieve? The answer is blue – because blue color saturation can only be achieved by high chemical temperatures. Thus, the higher the temperatures, the bluer the firework.

Binding Agents

Made from starchy materials such as dextrin and paron, binding agents serve as the firework’s “cabin,” housing all of the explosive materials in a confined space so that they can burn and react with one another. Can you guess what types of fireworks are bound with paron? Any sane man would assume, “Uh…all of them?” However, paron is only used when manufacturing red and green fireworks because its properties make those colors more vibrant.

The Biggest Firework of All…

Who doesn’t love a good show? Vortex valves have been used to handle fuel for the largest firework ever built – a piece of art that propels the highest distances known to man, but doesn’t explode. What kind of firework is it, you ask? A space shuttle. Okay, so we haven’t helped make a Guinness World Record explosive…but our valves have been used to handle dry, solid rocket fuel, which is used to catapult spacecrafts to perform research on our universe. And that’s the best show of all!