Traditional festivals and grand celebrations become pervasive and colorful because of fireworks, they have been synonymous with celebration. Starbursts of all colors flash in the night sky and slowly fall back to earth, extinguishing before reaching their targets. Some of the most spectacular fireworks displays are the ones that burst into brilliant flowers with colors like red or blue and then gently transition to other colors as they descend.

Creating firework colors is a complex endeavor, requiring considerable art and application of physical science. Excluding propellants or special effects, the points of light ejected from fireworks, termed ‘stars’, generally require an oxygen-producer, fuel, binder (to keep everything where it needs to be), and color producer. There are two main mechanisms of color production in fireworks, incandescence and luminescence.

A single firework is comprised of a collection of components that all have to work together in order to make a successful result. The first stage is the lift charge. The lift charge is comprised of black powder, a mixture of potassium nitrate, carbon, and sulfur. One ounce of black powder is used for every pound of the firework shell to propel the shell at 180 feet per second. The lift charge ignites the break charge. The break charge is what disperses the starburst charge. The starburst charge is the collection of pellets that we see when the firework explodes. The salute, the charge responsible for the boom we hear when the firework explodes, is the last to go.

Beautiful Patterns
Stars are similar in composition to a sparkler.

They contain flakes of metals like aluminum, steel, magnesium, iron or zinc. When the bursting charge explodes the shell, the stars are lit. The metal flakes heat up or burn, which makes sparks. Those are what you see when you’re watching a fireworks display. The color of the sparks can be changed by adding certain chemicals.

Various chemicals are used to produce colors in fireworks. These chemicals rely on two different things: incandescence and luminescence. Incandescence is heat-produced light. Luminescence is light created without heat. A chemical reaction causes an electron to release extra energy. The energy is released as a photon. The energy also determines the color of the photon. Different compounds cause different reactions, which make different colors.

Sometimes the salts needed to produce the desired color are unstable. Barium chloride(BaCl2, CAS:10326-27-9) makes green fireworks. It is unstable at room temperatures, so barium must be combined with a more stable compound. In this case, the chlorine is released in the heat of the burning of the pyrotechnic composition, to then form barium chloride and produce the green color. Copper chloride (blue), on the other hand, is unstable at high temperatures, so the fireworks cannot get too hot, yet must be bright enough to be seen. Strontium salts create red, and calcium salts create orange. Another common component is antimony, which makes the sparkly appearance of some fireworks.

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