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Firework Science: What Creates The Colors We See?

Bob Levey, Getty Images

If you’ve ever been to a July 4th celebration, you’ve seen the different bangs and pops of fireworks as they light up the night sky. But, if you’re a giant nerd, like myself, you want to get all up in those fireworks and see how they do it. Unsurprisingly, some of the chemicals used to produce such vibrant colors are also used for medicine, seasoning your food and hardening steel. But, it’s when these chemicals are pushed to the outer limits of their potential that the cool stuff happens. So let’s delve into some sweet science.

Red:

According to science, a mixture of strontium salts, lithium salts and lithium carbonate produces the red we see during a fireworks show. But, switching lithium carbonate with strontium carbonate produces the brightest reds.

Lithium carbonate is used to treat mania, which is a high level of bi-polar disorder, ALS and to dissolve stones in the bladder. You can also find it in lithium-ion batteries.

Strontium carbonate is a cheap chemical used sometimes to refine sugar, make road flares and to absorb electrons released from a cathode.

Orange, Yellow, Green:

These shocked me a little. To produce a vibrant orange, calcium salts are used. To make yellow, you use sodium salt. And for green, it’s barium salts. Essentially, salts are difficult to burn, but with enough heat, the exothermic reactions cause electron movement, thus producing the colors.

So, where can we find these chemicals besides hundreds of feet up in the air, raining down on us? Well, everywhere. Calcium salts, including calcium chloride, are used as electrolytes in your favorite sports drink, in brewing beer, as a firming agent for tofu and in pickling.

downing.amanda, flickr

Sodium salts might sound odd, but we use them all the time. Morton’s ring a bell? Common salt is used in almost everything and if used without moderation can make you stroke out.

Barium salts are completely inedible, but are used to case harden steel, making it stronger and more reliable.

Blue:

Blue fireworks are made up of copper compounds and chlorine producers, with the most common being copper(I) chloride.

I’m not going to lie, this stuff is hardcore. Looking at several websites, I’m still not even sure this stuff is legal onEarth. It used to be used to analyze carbon monoxide in gases, but besides that there’s a lot of other pictures and diagrams of things that looks a lot like boomerangs and disinterested hexagon drawings.

Purple and Silver:

To make a purple firework, it requires the mixture of strontium and copper compounds. Since nothing really burns purple, these fireworks are created by taking two existing colors and mashing them together into a big ball of awesome.

Silver fireworks are created through the age-old process of burning straight magnesium, titanium or aluminum. If you’ve sat through a high school or college freshman chemistry class, you’ve seen the teacher light magnesium up, just to watch it burn.

Since we’ve already covered the red and blue elements, let’s hit the silver. Titanium is often found on unruly teenagers in the form of body jewelry, or in your knees and shoulders as pins, plates and screws. Aluminum is used in various forms, including foil, baseball bats and cans. Magnesium is used in all kinds of things, both as a compound and as a natural element. Magnesium blocks can be used with a pocket knife to create sparks, while in the human body it may help prevent diabetes and osteoporosis.

Hopefully, this serves as a nice little fact sheet so that you can impress your inebriated friends, or if nothing else, distracts you for five to six minutes.

The most important thing, though, is to remember that playing with fireworks is never a good idea. You need those hands to hold brews and brats.

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