Monday, July 06, 2009

Potassium Nitrate, Sulfur and Charcoal Make What?

If you didn't see any fireworks this past weekend, you must live in a hole. Or in an entirely different country. The United States celebrated Independence Day and fireworks are one of the main ingredients to do so. Have you ever wondered about fireworks and what makes them work? I have, and I've done a little investigating.

Britannica Online defines the two types of fireworks: "force-and-spark and flame. In force-and-spark compositions, potassium nitrate, sulfur, and finely ground charcoal are used, with additional ingredients that produce various types of sparks. In flame compositions, such as the stars that are shot out of rockets, potassium nitrate, salts of antimony, and sulfur may be used. For coloured fire, potassium chlorate or potassium perchlorate is combined with a metal salt that determines the colour."

AccessScience has a nice entry on pyrotechnics and fireworks, citing that "[a] pyrotechnic mixture contains a fuel and an oxidizer, usually another ingredient to give a special effect, and often a binder."

We've got a few books on the topic, check them out for further information:

Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive that Changed the World by Jack Kelly

Pyrotechnics by Alexander Hardt

Fourth of July Fireworks by Patrick Merrick

Fireworks: Principles and Practice by Ronald Lancaster

Fireworks: the Science, the Art, and the Magic by Susan Kuklin

We've even got a DVD on fireworks and the science behind them:


Search for an article about fireworks in any one of our newspaper, magazine or journal databases. Try PressDisplay if you haven't already, it's one of my favorites right now!

And for those who are really in to fireworks, check out the biggest fireworks festival in the world, going on right now in Montreal, the Montreal Fireworks Festival. The United States competes on Saturday, August 1st. They're celebrating the 25th anniversary, so I'm sure this year's fireworks will be extra special.

(image from

No comments: