How Do Fireworks Work?
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How Do Fireworks Work?

A bite-size answer to the question how do fireworks work.

A good friend of mine wed recently and the after-celebrations included a rather spectacular firework display. On the drive home, my little boy – clearly impressed by what he’d witnessed – asked “Daddy, how do fireworks work?” Crikey, good question I thought. So what’s the answer?

Well, the first thing to know is that an aerial firework is usually produced as a heavy paper shell/container comprising these parts:

• Fuse / Time-delayed fuse

• Lifting charge

• Bursting charge

• Stars

It begins when the shell is placed into a mortar – e.g. a short pipe which holds the firework in place – and the fuse is lit. The resulting flame makes it way to the lifting charge at the base of the container which is basically black powder consisting of charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulphur (otherwise known as gunpowder). An explosion occurs and this sends the firework up into the air.

This happens due to combustion. And what is that? Well, combustion is basically a chemical reaction between two substances (a fuel and an oxidant/oxygen producer) that – when combined with an ignition source - produces heat and light. The heat causes the air/gasses in the container to expand very quickly which creates pressure (simply put, pressure is the amount of force molecules impart when they move around). Because the shell is tightly wrapped it offers some resistance to this pressure allowing it to rise up and build in intensity for a few seconds.

Anyway, as the firework is flying through the sky, the time-delayed fuse continues to burn until it reaches the bursting charge – more black powder stored higher up than the lifting charge – which is surrounded by ‘stars’ – spheres made up of fuels, oxidisers and combinations of different kinds of metals.

The bursting charge ignites and a second explosion happens. This time, the pressure is too powerful for the container to withstand. The heat from the bursting charge activates the surrounding stars and we see the firework / stars explode.

It is the stars that give us the beautiful coloured sparks we all love to see. The combination of the stars’ aforementioned fuels, oxidisers and metals produce the different colours. They come from both incandescence – light created through heat (red, orange and white) – and luminescence which is light though chemical reactions that don’t require too much heat (greens and blues).

More complex fireworks that have different colour phases and/or sounds still work in the same way but will have multiple sections within the shell and additional time-delayed fuses. Clever eh?

So there we go... if you too are ever asked by your children how fireworks work I hope this bite-size explanation helps. Thank you for reading!

Sources: How It Works Magazine, How Stuff Works,

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Comments (15)

Great, interesting and informative reading.Thanks Steve for sharing

I thought it had something to do with chemistry .. but that's overobvious

I love your bite sized science... makes reading your articles easy to understand AND great fun. Keep up the good work!

Very enjoyable read! Thanks for sharing.

Excellent composition Steve, thanks.

good article

You tackle subjects to easily Steve. Thanks, now I know how to explain this to my kid. I think I buzzed this one up, thanks again :)

This was so well presented that I can see parents and grandparents using this article as hints in their explanations. Good work and voted!

Well done on this article and the explanation of how fireworks work.

a well-written article on an interesting topic!

Very well-explained. I am sure that not just kids, but lots of adults (me included) learnt something here. Voted up for good reasons! :)

A fun read and educational too. Voted up.

I love the way your son inspires you to write such interesting articles. I also truly enjoy your writing style Steve. Thanks for sharing. :-)

Interesting topic.

Hi Steve, I love fireworks, and had to read this article out of curiousity. I'm out of votes for the day, so I added this article to my newspaper, The Factoidz Herald: If you want to add articles, just Tweet your article and add #factoidz to the end of your Tweet. It should be picked up in the next edition.