There are many articles about the mechanics of fireworks online, but not much attention is given to its close cousin, the sparkler. The disparity is understandable as fireworks are loud, colourful and they explode, while sparklers are fun, but mostly given to kids who can’t handle fire yet.
The humble sparkler needs its own fifteen minutes of fame, and that should start by letting people know how the little fire sticks work. The first thing people should be aware of is that not all sparklers are the same. Yes, it’s very shocking considering most of them do the same thing. The differences lie in the chemical composition of the sparklers and the effects that result from the different reactions.
A sparkler has four different components: an oxidiser, fuel, metal powder and a combustible binder. The differences depend on the kind of metal powder and oxidiser used.
Metal and Fire Make Orange
The metal powder determines the colour of the sparks; for example, iron makes orange sparks while titanium can produce rich white sparks, which are different from white sparks made by aluminium and magnesium. The oxidiser on the other hand, produces the oxygen to burn the mixture. Most sparklers make use of nitrates to kick-start the reaction. Some manufacturers choose the more exciting potassium perchlorate, which are more powerful, but have more potential to explode.
The modern composition of the sparkler is actually miles away from the ‘classic’ design, which only consisted of a wire dipped in a batter of slow burning pyrotechnic mixture. Safety was a major concern with the old sparklers, prompting fireworks manufacturers to create products that are safer and more enjoyable.
The combustible binder is the secret to keeping the modern sparklers safe enough for children to use, since it keeps the reaction in check as it burns. But there have been attempts to make sparklers more exciting.
Sparkler bombs are crude fireworks, with hundreds of sparklers bound with tape leaving one extended as a fuse. The bombs are extremely dangerous as they can accidentally detonate through heat or friction. One such device claimed three lives in 2008 due to a botched ignition.
Sparklers are a staple in almost every celebration with fireworks, and people would do well to remember them.