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How Do Fireworks Actually Work?

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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 …

ROCKETS

fireworks over new york city
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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.

FOUNTAINS

fountain type fireworks
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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.

CATHERINE WHEELS

wheel firework
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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.

SPARKLERS

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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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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

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

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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