How Fireworks Get Their Colors, Sounds, and Shapes

Fireworks, from their brilliant colors to their impressive noises, are all displays of chemistry at work. Let’s look at what gives fireworks their colors, their sounds, and even their shapes.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #292

Whether you’re celebrating Independence Day or Mexico’s advancement in the World Cup (until Brazil put an end to that), fireworks are popular in the months of June and July. Fireworks, from their brilliant colors to their impressive noises, are all displays of chemistry at work. Let's look at what gives fireworks their colors, their sounds, and even their shapes.

The history of fireworks is usually traced back to medieval China, although legends vary as to exactly how they were invented. A Chinese monk from the seventh-century B.C.E. named Li Tian is often credited with creating the first firework. According to lore, he stuffed gunpowder into a bamboo shoot and threw it into a fire, and boom! He is celebrated in parts of China with fireworks displays every April. Other legends claim the first fireworks came from a cook working in the fields who attempted to cook food by mixing sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (also known as potassium nitrate). In the United States, using fireworks to celebrate independence and as a morale booster date back as far as the Revolutionary War.

How Do Aerial Fireworks Work?

The mix of material that create the currently popular aerial fireworks, or the fireworks that explode in colorful lights and loud noises high above us in the sky, are encased within an outer shell, sometimes called a mortar. When the firework is first lit, the so-called lift charge ignites a type of gun powder at the base of the firework which sends the mortar shell and its contents shooting up into the air.

how fireworks work infographic

Mike Nudelman/Business Insider

The star of the firework show are the small, explosive pellets of 1-1.5 inches in diameter called, well, "stars." They are little packets of fuel, an oxidizing agent, and a binding agent, mixed with metallic salts or oxides. Once safely high in the air, delayed bursting charges ignite the stars while the explosion also creates a high pressure gas that sends the stars bursting out of the mortar shell.

How Do Fireworks Get Their Colors?

The multitude of firework colors are achieved by varying the different metallic salts or oxides added to the mix. The fuel and oxidizing agent together make an intense amount of heat very quickly which activates or heats up these metal colorants. The metallic atoms become what we call excited or, in other words, their electrons gain energy and are bumped up to a higher energy state. Once the fuse is exhausted and the temperature cools again, those electrons return back down to their normal, lower energy state. The extra energy they once had gets emitted in the form of light.

The energy required to bump an electron up to the next energy level (and thus the energy that gets emitted once the electron moves back down to its normal state) varies depending on the kind of atom or metal. That quantized amount of energy in turn determines the wavelength or color of light that gets emitted.

  • Barium will give you a green firework display.
  • Sodium produces a gold display.
  • Orange fireworks are the result of calcium salts.
  • Red fireworks come from lithium or strontium salts.
  • Magnesium will give you a white display.
  • Copper chloride shines blue.

the elements that make different fireworks colors

Some fireworks contain layers of the different metals so that the aerial display shines with different colors at different stages.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.