• Caitlin Kennedy

Fantastical Fireworks

by Caitlin Kennedy

New Year’s Eve; also known as the night of a thousand bangs, nightmare on dog street or the Great Gunpowder Massacre. Around the world, approximately 27 million fireworks are released on New Year’s Eve, causing an indeterminable number of ooohs and aaaahs (or in the case of dogs, howls and whimpers). We decided to shine a sparkly light on those most prevalent of celebratory things and present the most fascinating firework factoids that you can mull over whilst sipping on mulled wine.

1. Many historians believe that fireworks were originally developed in the second century B.C. in ancient Liuyang, China. It is thought that the first natural “firecrackers” were bamboo stalks that when thrown in a fire, would explode with a bang because of the overheating of the hollow air pockets in the stalk. The Ancient Chinese civilization believed these natural “firecrackers” would ward off evil spirits.

Sometime during the period 600-900 AD, legend has it that a Chinese alchemist mixed potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal and inadvertently stumbled across the crude chemical recipe for gunpowder. Supposedly, they had been searching for an elixir for immortality.

The black, flaky powder that resulted from their accidental concoction was later poured into hollowed out bamboo sticks (and later stiff paper tubes) forming the first man made fireworks.

This “fire drug” (or huo yao) became an integral part of Chinese cultural celebrations. It wasn’t long before military engineers used the explosive chemical concoction to their advantage. The first recorded use of gunpowder weaponry in China dates to 1046 and references a crude gunpowder catapult. The Chinese also took traditional bamboo sparklers and attached them to arrows to rain down on their enemies. There are also chilling accounts of fireworks being strapped to rats for use in medieval warfare. So the invention of fireworks led to the invention of pyrotechnic weaponry—not the other way around.

Fireworks made their way to Europe in the 13th century and by the 15th century they were widely used for religious festivals and public entertainment. The Italians were the first to make them colourful by using metallic powders to create specific colours. In the 1830s, Italian pyrotechnicians developed aerial shells (still used today) which resemble ice cream cones. The shells contain fuel in a cone bottom, while the “scoop” contains an outer layer of pyrotechnic stars, or tiny balls containing the chemicals needed to produce a desired colour, and an inner bursting charge.

A firework requires three key components: an oxidizer, a fuel and a chemical mixture to produce the colour. The oxidizer breaks the chemical bonds in the fuel, releasing all of the energy that’s stored in those bonds. To ignite this chemical reaction, all you need is a bit of fire, in the form of a fuse or a direct flame. Specific elements produce specific colours. When an element burns, its electrons get excited, and it releases energy in the form of light. Different chemicals burn at different wavelengths of light. Strontium and lithium compounds produce deep reds; copper produces blues; titanium and magnesium burn silver or white; calcium creates an orange colour; sodium produces yellow pyrotechnics; and finally, barium burns green. Combining chlorine with barium or copper creates neon green and turquoise flames, respectively. Blue is apparently the most difficult to produce.

As for the sounds, these also differ according to the chemical used. Layers of an organic salt burn one at a time. As each layer burns, it slowly releases a gas, creating the whistling sound associated with most firework rockets. Aluminium or iron flakes can create hissing or sizzling sparkles, while titanium powder can create loud blasts, in addition to white sparks.

Fireworks have historically not been the most environmentally friendly of activities. Exploding fireworks release heavy metals and other air pollutants into the atmosphere. Barium nitrate can cause lung problems, while the oxidizer potassium perchlorate has been linked to thyroid problems and birth defects. The shell is also non-recyclable. However, scientists are developing more environmentally friendly firework recipes. By replacing chlorine with iodine, a team in the U.S. Army has found that sodium and potassium periodate are both safe and effective oxidisers. The same group also found success replacing barium with boron. The work is aimed at making more environmentally friendly flares for military use, but could also be applied to civilian fireworks. Some fireworks that use nitrogen-rich compounds in place of perchlorates have been used in small displays, but the challenge is making eco-friendly products as cheap as alternatives.

So when you’re bringing in the year 2020 with a bang and a sparkle, you’ll be able to regale your friends with your astounding knowledge. Everyone will for sure want to kiss you at midnight.

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