Fireworks and Their Colours: The Concept of Colour Transition

January 31, 2017

Fireworks paint dramatic colour transitions across the sky when they combust. The saturated hues shift from red to gold, blue to green, and every colour in-between. It's a breath-taking, eye-popping progression, but have you ever wondered what chemical concepts rule these changes? Let's play chemist for the day and find out what causative factors are responsible.

An Elemental Primer

If a piece of copper is burnt in an open flame, it burns with a blue-green tint. That one fact defines pyrotechnic artistry. Thermal incandescence is mixing with chemical luminescence to produce a predictable visual phenomenon. In this case, it's the heat of the fire and the chemical composition of a metal that causes a sparking colour to be emitted, but the same principle works in exactly the same way in the pyrotechnic industry, although it's vastly refined.

Salted Compounds

Fireworks combust precisely measured mixes of chemicals, compounds that are triggered in an intelligently set order. Charcoal is used as a base, a fundamental generator of yellow-white incandescence. From this base mix, the colour temperature transitions by burning special metal salts. These are the compounds that create complex pigments, changes that progress in a calculated manner, as set in motion by expert fireworks colour designers. Of course, in answering one question, we just asked several more. How do these salted compounds get into the firework shell? And what form do they take? Both answers are found in the stars.

Little Star Packages

Each colour representative is initially loaded into what's called a "star," a little pellet packed with a metal salt that will ignite to generate a single hue. The colour engineer's job is to combine these "stars" so that gold (iron-carbon salts) and red (strontium salts), blue (copper salts) and green (barium salts) pyrotechnical effects combine as explosive patterns, shapes that blend and animate to form multi-hued transitions. Incidentally, when the shell is filled with its pellet load and the transitions are locked in, it's time to finish the combustible package by adding the lift charge. The lift chemicals, well, they're simply the part of the firework that propels it into the sky while generating a sparkling trail.

Color transition concepts, at least in firework designs, do build on chemical know-how, but it's a skill set that has much in common with artistic expression. The pellets are the colour transitioning mechanisms, the animated brush strokes. Timing is then the final theatrical component, with the triggering stars combusting in exactly judged sequences to create living patterns, transitions that captivate everyone.

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