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A bang out of chemistry

This article first appeared in the July 3, 2020 edition of the Davis Enterprise

A bang out of chemistry

4th of July fireworks. Photo by Erik Drost.

A bang out of chemistry


By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Most July 4th celebrations are accompanied by a fireworks display.  Fireworks are created by igniting and burning different minerals.  Most of these are the alkali metals and alkaline-earth metals on the left side of the periodic table, but a few are from the transitional metals in the middle.  We enjoy these using these materials in fireworks, but what else are these metals and salts used for in our lives?

The red color in fireworks comes from salt mixtures that contain strontium.  Atomic number 38, and has the symbol Sr, strontium was first discovered in 1790 in Scotland, and gets its name from the village Strontian, which is near the mine with was first collected.  Strontium has several other applications other than making fireworks.  One of the major applications of strontium was in the glass of cathode ray tubes in early color televisions.  The strontium glass prevented X-ray emissions from escaping the television set.  Other applications of strontium is making glow in the dark toys, sensitive teeth toothpaste, and some treatments for bone cancers and diseases.

Orange fireworks come from calcium salt mixtures.  Atomic number 20 and symbol Ca, calcium is the fifth most abundant element in our planet's crust.  Because of its abundance, calcium has countless other uses.  It is often found in foods such as fish, dairy products, and a leavening agent in breads, but is also used to strengthen other synthetic materials such as rubber, resins, toothpaste, and soaps.  Calcium is even found in our own bodies, helping to make up our bones and keeping them healthy and strong.

Yellow fireworks are created with sodium salts.  Atomic number 11 and symbol Na, sodium is the sixth most abundant element in our crust and is an essential element for all animals and plants.  Common uses for sodium are in food additives and vitamins but can also be used as a de-icing agent in cold places.

Barium salts creates green fireworks.  Atomic number 56 and symbol Ba and is most commonly combined with metals to make alloys.  Because it has low toxicity to the human body, but has a high density, barium is commonly used to aid with the imaging of the digestive tract.

Copper creates the brilliant blue hues of fireworks.  Atomic number 29 and symbol Cu, there is evidence that copper has been used by humans as early as 8000 BC.  Abundant and naturally stable, copper has been used to make tools and jewelry in early civilizations, and modernly is being used in wires, cables, and electronics.

Purple color in fireworks comes from a combination of copper and strontium.  Silver and white fireworks are simply super-heated magnesium and aluminum metals.

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