Tag Archives: fireworks

4th of July Science

The 4th of July is the perfect time to mix science and celebration! Here are 4th of July science projects you can try and explanations of how different fireworks work:

Fireworks Periodic Table

4th of July Science: Fireworks Periodic Table

4th of July Science: Fireworks Periodic Table

Kick of the 4th of July learning by printing this fireworks periodic table. It tells you how different elements are used in fireworks and the colors they produce.

Make Safe Black Snakes

4th of July Science - Homemade Black Snakes

4th of July Science – Homemade Black Snakes

Black snakes are non-exploding fireworks that make black or gray columns of ash that resemble slithering snakes. You can make black snakes for a 4th of July science project using 2 ingredients from your kitchen.

Make Smoke Bombs

Sure, you can buy smoke bombs. You can also make them. Here’s a quick and easy recipe that does not require any esoteric ingredients. All you need is a chemical cold pack and some newspapers.

Make Your Own Sparklers

Like black snakes and smoke bombs, sparklers are 4th of July fireworks that don’t explode. They go give off a shower of sparks, though, so they are banned in some places. Check your local laws to make sure you’re in the clear and then give one or both of these easy homemade sparkler recipes a try.

Homemade Firecrackers

4th of July Science Project: Homemade Firecrackers (Rob Cruickshank)

4th of July Science Project: Homemade Firecrackers (Rob Cruickshank)

Unlike the preceding 4th of July science projects, homemade firecrackers do go “boom”. However, you control the size of the bang by the amount of ingredients you use and how much you restrict the explosion. For example, you can explode baking soda and vinegar in a plastic bag and the pop isn’t going to hurt you. Similarly, if you wrap a firecracker in paper rather than cardboard, you’ll limit its force. Keep physics in mind when you make your firecrackers and have fun experimenting!

Red and Blue Tabletop Fire Vortex

While not a traditional fireworks project, this tabletop pyrotechnic burns in patriotic red and blue (and even white, if you like). Apply science to color the flames and to turn a fire into a vortex of flames.

4th of July Science Project - Red and Blue Fire Vortex (Anne Helmenstine)

4th of July Science Project – Red and Blue Fire Vortex (Anne Helmenstine)

Learn more about 4th of July science:

4th of July Science: Firework Color Elements

4th of July Science: Firework Color Elements


How To Make a Smoke Bomb Without Potassium Nitrate or Ping Pong Balls

A smoke bomb made from newspaper and a cold pack produces thick white smoke. (THX0477, Flickr)

A smoke bomb made from newspaper and a cold pack produces thick white smoke. (THX0477, Flickr)

It’s really easy to make a homemade smoke bomb without potassium nitrate or ping pong balls. These instructions are for making a smoke bomb from a cold pack and newspapers. It’s simple and there is no cooking involved.

Cold Pack Smoke Bomb Materials

  • ammonium nitrate (from a cold pack, if you don’t have the pure chemical)
  • newspaper
  • water
  • bucket or pan

Assemble the Smoke Bomb

  1. You need ammonium nitrate from a chemical cold pack. If you don’t have one, you can get them at just about any store inexpensively (less than you’d pay for smoke bombs, for sure). Cut open a cold pack, discard the packet of water, and pour the granules into a bucket or large pan. These granules are the ammonium nitrate.
  2. Now you have to get the ammonium nitrate into solution so the newspaper will be able to absorb it. Add just enough water to the ammonium nitrate to dissolve the granules. Don’t over do it or you might not get much smoke! You want the chemical to be dissolved, but concentrated.
  3. Dip a sheet of newsletter into the ammonium nitrate solution. Let it absorb the liquid about 30 seconds before removing it. The wet newspaper will be fragile, so use care. You may want to fold the newpaper before soaking it to make it easier to handle.
  4. Lay the sheet of damp newspaper out to dry.
  5. When it is completely dry, roll up the sheet and secure it with tape or string or by twisting the paper. This is your finished smoke bomb.
  6. When you are ready to light the smoke bomb, take it outside and light one edge of the rolled up newspaper. Enjoy the white smoke!

Tips for Success

  • You might want to wear disposable gloves to avoid touching the ammonium nitrate. If you do touch it, wash your hands to remove it. It’s not particularly dangerous or toxic, but you don’t want to accidentally eat a sandwich with the chemical residue on your hands, do you?
  • If you don’t get a lot of smoke from your smoke bomb, there are two likely causes. First, your paper might not have been completely dry. Second, you might not have enough ammonium nitrate in the paper. Fix this by using less water to dissolve the chemical and by making sure the paper is completely saturated with the liquid before drying it.
  • Try different sizes of paper and folding it different ways. What happens if you crumple the paper into a ball? What factors affect how much smoke is produced?

Video of Newspaper and Ammonium Nitrate Smoke Bombs

Periodic Table of Fireworks

Periodic Table of FireworksFireworks are a colorful display on summer nights. Have you ever wondered about the chemistry of those bright colored explosions? The colors produced depend on the elements added to the firework before they are launched. This periodic table of fireworks highlights the common elements used to produce colors and effects.

Element 3: Lithium

Lithium is used to add red color to a firework. The most common form of lithium used is lithium carbonate, Li2CO3.

Element 6: Carbon

Carbon is typically black in color, making it useless for night sky displays. It serves as the fuel for the combustion of the firework. It is also important in fireworks as a component of black powder. Black powder is used as the propellant to launch the firework into the sky. Carbon is also found in the ash of black snakes fireworks.

Element 8: Oxygen

Oxygen does not impart a color to fireworks, but oxygen is essential to cause the reactions that produce the colors. It is also the main element in the combustion of the firework.

Element 11: Sodium

Sodium burns with a bright yellow color. Common table salt NaCl is often used for yellow color in a firework.

Element 12: Magnesium

Magnesium imparts a bright white light when burned. Magnesium chloride, MgCl2 is used to produce bright sparks and enhance the brilliance of a firework.

Element 13: Aluminum

Aluminum metal is used to produce silver colored sparks. The most common use of this in fireworks is the sparkler.

Element 17: Chlorine

Chlorine is a common component of the metal salts used to produce colors in fireworks. It is also found in many of the oxidizing agents used to fuel the combustion reactions.

Element 19: Potassium

Potassium is a component of many of the oxidizers used in fireworks. Potassium chlorate (KClO3), potassium nitrate (KNO3) or saltpetre, and potassium perchlorate (KClO4) are all common oxidizers used as fuel for propellants and combustion.

Element 20: Calcium

Calcium is used to produce an orange color to fireworks. Adding calcium to a firework also deepens the colors produced in the combustion.

Element 22: Titanium

Titanium metal is added to produce silver colored sparks.

Element 26: Iron

Iron is added to produce sparks. The color of the sparks depends on the temperature of the burning iron. The color can range from red to bright orange in fireworks.

Element 29: Copper

Burning copper salts are responsible for the blue colors seen in fireworks.

Element 30: Zinc

Zinc metal is used to produce smoke effects in fireworks.

Element 38: Strontium

Strontium salts are used to produce red in many fireworks. Strontium is also used to stabilize the chemical mixtures in fireworks.

Element 51: Antimony

The glitter effect seen in many fireworks is produced by burning antimony.

Element 56: Barium

Barium salts produce green in fireworks. The common barium salt used is barium chloride, BaCl2. Barium is also used to stabilize firework mixtures.


Today In Science History – July 4

Deep Impact

Collision of Deep Impact probe on July 4, 2005 recorded by high resolution cameras aboard the spacecraft. Credit: NASA

July 4 is the American Independence Day typically celebrated with firework displays. NASA decided to celebrate with their own fireworks in 2005.

The Deep Impact spacecraft released the impactor probe to collide with the comet Temple 1. The 370 kg probe collided with the surface of the comet on July 4, 2005. The impact caused a 100 meter wide and 30 meter deep crater which ejected comet material into space. The ejected material scattered the sunlight and produced a spectacular light show. The Deep Impact probe and several large and small telescopes recorded the collision to examine the chemical makeup of the comet’s interior.

The impact was a greatly anticipated event for astronomers. Some wondered if the impactor probe would punch clear through the comet and pass through the other side. Others wondered if the impact would occur at all. After the impact, the results were unexpected. The comet material contained a lot more dust than ice and the dust was much finer than expected. Analysis of the material showed the comet contained carbonates, sodium and silicates and was made up of approximately 75% empty space. The remaining part of the spacecraft was repurposed to fly by the comets Boethin, Hartley 2 and Garradd. NASA lost contact with Deep Impact on September 3, 2013.

Not everyone was happy with the success of the mission. Russian astrologer Marina Bay filed a $300 Million suit against NASA for “ruining the natural balance of forces in the universe”. She felt the collision altered the magnetic field of the comet and could cause unforeseen effects here on Earth. The only unforeseen effect was losing her lawsuit.


Firework Colors Chemistry

Fireworks colors are a matter of chemistry. The colors come partly from the elements and compounds used in fireworks and partly by incandescence or light produced by different temperatures. Here’s a look at how fireworks colors work:

Firework Colors – Luminescence of Element and Compounds

When chemicals are heated, the ions emit characteristic wavelengths or colors of light. This works much like the flame test, a method used to identify a substance by its color in a flame. Metal ions are responsible for common colors:

Elements That Make Firework Colors

Elements That Make Firework Colors

Redstrontium salts, lithium salts
lithium carbonate, Li2CO3 = red
strontium carbonate, SrCO3 = bright red
Orangecalcium salts
calcium chloride, CaCl2
calcium sulfate, CaSO4·xH2O, where x = 0,2,3,5
Goldincandescence of iron (with carbon), charcoal, or lampblack
Yellowsodium compounds
sodium nitrate, NaNO3
cryolite, Na3AlF6
Electric Whitewhite-hot metal, such as magnesium or aluminum
barium oxide, BaO
Greenbarium compounds + chlorine producer
barium chloride, BaCl+ is bright green
Bluecopper compounds + chlorine producer
copper acetoarsenite (Paris Green), Cu3As2O3Cu(C2H3O2)2 = blue
copper (I) chloride, CuCl = turquoise blue
Purplemixture of strontium (red) and copper (blue) compounds
Silverburning aluminum, titanium, or magnesium powder or flakes

Quality control is important in all aspects of fireworks design, including color formulation. Impurities and contaminants in the chemicals can completely ruin the effect. For example, even trace amounts of sodium in a chemical mixture will produce a bright yellow color that can drown out weaker colors.

Firework Colors – Incandescence

You know how a stove burner is dark when its relatively cool, red when its hot, and white-hot when you turn it all the way up? This is incandescence of the heating element, which is light emitted by the element as it gets hot. Fireworks also rely on incandescence for special effects and colors. Certain chemicals are red, orange, yellow, and white when heated. In particular, metals are heated to produce colored sparks, glitter, and fountain effects. Titanium, iron, and aluminum flakes are common metals heated to incandescence in fireworks.

Firework Periodic Table

Here’s a handy periodic table you can print that shows the principal elements used in fireworks. The table is color-coded, so you can see at a glance which colors are produced by heating certain elements.

Periodic Table of Fireworks

Periodic Table of Fireworks

Homemade Black Snake Fireworks

Black Snake Firework (Anne Helmenstine)

Black Snake Firework (Anne Helmenstine)

Black snake fireworks are small, non-exploding fireworks that you ignite to push out a growing column of black ash. While you can buy these fireworks, they are easy to make using kitchen ingredients and a fuel.


  • 4 teaspoons powdered or confectioner sugar (sucrose)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • lighter fluid or rubbing alcohol
  • sand or dirt (optional)

Make Black Snake Fireworks

  1. Mix together the sugar and baking soda.
  2. Make a depression in sand or dirt, pour the mixture into the depression, and lightly cover it with a fine layer of sand. You could just use sugar and baking soda in a bowl, but it makes for a cool effect where the snake seems to push out of the ground!
  3. Dampen the soil and mixture with lighter fluid or rubbing alcohol.
  4. Light the fuel with a match or lighter. Once the sugar in the underlying mixture catches fire, the black snake will start to grow.
  5. The firework goes out on its own, but you can extinguish it with water or by covering it with dirt.

How Sparklers Work

Sparkler (Anne Helmenstine)All fireworks are not the same. For example, a firecracker and a sparkler are very different. A firecracker creates a noisy controlled explosion. A sparkler, on the other hand, burns over a long period of time (up to a minute) and produces a brilliant shower of sparks. Sparklers are sometimes called ‘snowballs’ because they have a ball of sparks surrounding the burning part of the sparkler.

Sparkler Chemistry

Several materials are required for a sparkler:

  • an oxidizer
  • a fuel
  • iron, steel, aluminum, or other metal powder
  • a combustible binder

In addition to these components, colorants and compounds may be added to moderate the chemical reaction.
The fuel may be charcoal and sulfur, or a sparkler may simply use its binder (material used to hold the metal onto the stick) as the fuel. The binder is usually sugar, starch, or shellac. Potassium nitrate or potassium chlorate may be used as oxidizers. The sparks are glowing bits of metal. A sparkler formula may be quite simple. For example, a sparkler may consist only of potassium perchlorate, titanium or aluminum, and dextrin.

How Sparklers Work

Now that you’ve seen the composition of a sparkler, let’s consider how these chemicals react with each other:


Oxidizers produce oxgen to burn the mixture. Oxidizers are usually nitrates, chlorates, or perchlorates. Nitrates are made up of a metal ion and a nitrate ion. Nitrates give up 1/3 of their oxygen to yield nitrites and oxygen. The resulting equation for potassium nitrate looks like this:

2 KNO3(solid) → 2 KNO2(solid) +O2(gas)

Chlorates are made up of a metal ion and the chlorate ion. Chlorates give up all of their oxygen, causing a more spectacular reaction. However, this also means they are explosive. An example of potassium chlorate yielding its oxygen would look like this:

2 KClO3(solid) → 2 KCl(solid) + 3 O2(gas)

Perchlorates have more oxygen in them, but are less likely to explode as a result of impact than are chlorates. Potassium perchlorate yields its oxygen in this reaction:

KClO4(solid) → KCl(solid) + 2 O2(gas)

Reducing Agents

The reducing agents is the fuel used to burn the oxygen produced by the oxidizers. This combustion produces hot gas. Examples of reducing agents are sulfur and charcoal, which react with the oxygen to form sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2), respectively.


Two reducing agents may be combined to accelerate or slow the reaction. Also, metals affect the speed of the reaction. Finer metal powders react more quickly than coarse powders or flakes. Other substances, such as cornmeal, also may be added to regulate the reaction.


Binders hold the mixture together. For a sparkler, common binders are dextrin (a sugar) dampened by water, or a shellac compound dampened by alcohol. The binder can serve as a reducing agent and as a reaction moderator.

Putting it All Together

To summarize, a sparkler consists of a chemical mixture that is molded onto a stick or wire. These chemicals may be mixed with water to form a slurry that can be coated on a wire (by dipping) or poured into a tube. Once the mixture dries, you have a sparkler. Aluminum, iron, steel, zinc or magnesium dust or flakes may be used to create the bright, shimmering sparks. The metal flakes heat up until they are incandescent and glow or, at a high enough temperature, actually burn. A variety of chemicals can be added to create colors. The fuel and oxidizer are proportioned so that the sparkler burns slowly rather than exploding like a firecracker. Once one end of the sparkler is ignited, it burns progressively to the other end.

Safety Information

Sparks cascading off of a burning stick present a burn hazard and potentially a fire hazard. The chemicals used in a sparkler tend not to be highly toxic, but they aren’t edible. Sparklers should not be burned on cakes as candles or otherwise used in a manner which could lead to consumption of the ash.