How Do Fireworks Actually Work?


by Sarah Dobbs

Each year, as the Fourth of July approaches, the sound of explosions starts to become a normal part of the evening. Fireworks have existed in one form or another for around 1000 years, and they show no signs of going away anytime soon. But how do they work? Most of us just know to light the fuse and stand back. Let’s take a closer look …


fireworks over new york city

Rocket-type fireworks can produce all kinds of different effects when they go off, but the basic structure of an aerial firework stays more or less the same. Each rocket is made up of the following parts: a mortar, fuses, propellant powder, a shell, a bursting charge, and a collection of "stars." The mortar is the outer container, and the fuse is, of course, the piece that you light. When the fuse burns down, the propellant ignites and shoots the firework into the air.

When it’s airborne, a second explosion is triggered inside the shell by a time delay fuse. The bursting charges set off the stars—small, explosive pellets made of fuel and metallic compounds that create the lights in the fireworks display. Different metals create different colors when they ignite: barium goes green, calcium salts go orange, magnesium goes white, copper is blue, lithium turns red, and sodium becomes gold. And the arrangement of the stars will determine the shape of the explosion—so if they’re packed in a heart shape, they should reproduce that heart shape in the sky.

Other effects can also be built in by adding various ingredients; different kinds of fuel can create sound effects, for example, like the whistling or screaming noises some rockets make as they shoot into the sky. Stars can be made up of layers of different metallic compounds, to create multicolored explosions. And in some more complex fireworks, there may be several stages of explosions; in that case, there are generally multiple fuses inside the shell, and as each burns down, a different explosive goes off.


fountain type fireworks

Of course, not all fireworks are of the shoot-into-the-air-and-go-bang variety. Fountains don’t take off, and generally don’t go bang, either; instead, they stay where they’re placed and give off a cascade of sparks—like a fountain, but with pyrotechnics instead of water.

Usually conical in shape, fountains consist of a paper or plastic tube, with clay plugs at either end. Inside the tube are a couple of different kinds of fuel, plus the metal compounds that create the sparks. When the fuse is lit, the fuel ignites, and sparks are forced out of an aperture in the top of the fountain.

Again, different metals create different colors and effects. Multi-stage effects can be created by bundling multiple tubes together, so that as one finishes another starts, adding different colors or sound effects to the display.


wheel firework

Catherine wheels are another common type of firework, and again the same kinds of ingredients are used to create a slightly different effect. Named for the unfortunate Saint Catherine, these fireworks are generally fixed to a pole or a mount, so that they can spin as they burn, creating a spiral of sparks.

Bigger Catherine wheels tend to have a plastic disk at their center, with “gerbs” attached around the edge. The gerbs are similar to fountains, in that they’re tubes filled with the mixture of ingredients that create the effects; when lit, the thrust from the explosives makes the wheel turn as they burn. And again, the effect can be made more elaborate with multi-stage effects and different colors; each gerb might be different, so that the wheel changes as each one ignites in turn.

Smaller Catherine wheels might, instead, be made up of a single long, thin tube coiled into shape around a smaller central disk. Again, the thrust of ignition makes the wheel spin.


person holding sparkler

The only firework you should ever hold in your hand once it’s lit is a sparkler—a Fourth of July staple. Unlike most other fireworks, they don’t explode with a bang, but gently fizzle for around a minute, as a ball of sparks makes its way down a metal wire. And they’re pretty simple: basically, the metal wire is dipped into a pyrotechnic compound that’s made up of a metallic fuel, an oxidizer, and a binding material.

The metallic fuel is what creates the sparks; it’s usually aluminum or magnesium, which creates white sparks, but some sparklers may use iron or ferrotitanium for gold sparks instead. The oxidizer, which provides the oxygen to keep the spark going, is generally potassium nitrate. And then a binding material, a kind of flammable starch, keeps the mixture together, and burns away once the sparkler is lit.

Hopefully, none of that has taken away any of the magic of a good fireworks display. If nothing else, you’ll be able to impress your friends by quietly musing “oooh, barium” next time you see a green firework.

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Could an Astronaut Steal a Rocket and Lift Off, Without Mission Control?


C Stuart Hardwick:

Not with any rocket that has ever thus far carried a person into orbit from Earth, no. Large rockets are complex, their launch facilities are complex, their trajectories are complex, and the production of their propellants is complex.

Let me give you one simple example:

  • Let’s say astro-Sally is the last woman on Earth, and is fully qualified to fly the Saturn-V.
  • Further, let’s say the Rapture (which as I understand it, is some sort of hip-hop induced global catastrophe that liquefies all the people) has left a Saturn-V sitting on the pad, raring to go.
  • Further, let’s grant that, given enough time, astro-Sally can locate sufficient documentation to operate the several dozen controls needed to pump the first stage propellant tanks full of kerosene.
  • Now what? Oxidizer, right? Wrong. First, she has to attend to the batteries, oxygen, hydrogen, and helium pressurant tanks in her spacecraft, otherwise it’s going to be a short, final flight. And she’ll need to fill the hypergolics for the spacecraft propulsion and maneuvering systems. If she screws that up, the rocket will explode with her crawling on it. If she gets a single drop of either of these on her skin or in her lungs, she’ll die.
  • But okay, maybe all the hypergolics were already loaded (not safe, but possible) and assume she manages to get the LOX, H2, and HE tanks ready without going Hindenburg all over the Cape.
  • And…let’s just say Hermione Granger comes back from the Rapture to work that obscure spell, propellantus preparum.
  • All set, right? Well, no. See, before any large rocket can lift off, the water quench system must be in operation. Lift off without it, and the sound pressure generated by the engines will bounce off the pad, cave in the first stage, and cause 36 stories of rocket to go “boom.”
  • So she searches the blockhouse and figures out how to turn on the water quench system, then hops in the director’s Tesla (why not?) and speeds out to the pad, jumps in the lift, starts up the gantry—and the water quench system runs out of water ... Where’d she think that water comes from? Fairies? No, it comes from a water tower—loaded with an ample supply for a couple of launch attempts. Then it must be refilled.

Now imagine how much harder this would all be with the FBI on your tail.

Can a rocket be built that’s simple enough and automated enough to be susceptible to theft? Sure. Have we done so? Nope. The Soyuz is probably the closest—being highly derived from an ICBM designed to be “easy” to launch, but even it’s really not very close.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.


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