Ever wonder what gives fireworks their colors?
Chemical elements, the fundamental units of all matter on Earth, are the answer.
Colors result from the burning of chemical elements. Those elements are usually part of molecular compounds.
These compounds can look quite different from the elements that created them. For example, the elements hydrogen and oxygen are gases at room temperature. But add two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen and you get water — H2O — which is liquid at room temperature.
Some compounds, however, still show their elemental traits. Sodium gives off flashes of yellow when it burns, but so does the sodium nitrate, a compound that is easier to work with (pure sodium reacts violently to water and moisture in the air).
So pyrotechnicians — the experts who create fireworks — select compounds they can more safely use and still give off an element’s color.
Blue is the most difficult color to produce, says Ben Schwegler, chief scientist of Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development. Schwegler advises the company on the science and technology behind many of its rides and shows.
Blue light is often tricky for the human eye to perceive, Schwegler said. Because of certain chemical properties, it is also a challenge to create a very bright blue firework effect, without washing out the blue color with white light.
Pyrotechnicians mold these chemical compounds into “stars,” which are packed into a cylindrical or spherical fireworks shell (most are spherical nowadays). The way the stars are packed inside determines the pattern and geometry of the fireworks explosion. The time-delay fuse will ignite the stars and the compounds inside them, giving off those brilliant, elemental colors.
For kids who dream of becoming a pyrotechnic wizard someday, Dr. Schwegler’s advice is to do well in school, pay attention to laboratory safety rules, and enjoy those science classes.
“If you love science, pyrotechnics could be a really exciting field to work in. It integrates some of our most important scientific concepts, like the physics of motion, thermodynamics, and chemical reactions,” says Schwegler.
On top of the math, chemistry, and physics, creativity and a zest for fun are necessary, too.
“Remember, fireworks are works of art,” says Schwegler. “Both your imagination and scientific expertise and will be rewarded with the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ of appreciation from the crowd.”
This was definitely a challenging graphic to assemble — but a ton of fun. Huge thanks to all of the OCR staff who helped me along… nearly a year ago!