Wire sparklers have become a staple of celebration. From Fourth of July parties to wedding sparkler send offs, these little balls of fire are a great way to make any occasion more fun and memorable for the whole crowd. But have you ever wondered about the science behind wire sparklers? How do they work, exactly? It’s time to dust off your high school chemistry knowledge for a quick and easy lesson on the science behind long lasting sparklers.
The “classic” type of sparkler is made of a few basic components. A stiff metal wire, usually eight to 10 inches long, gets coated in a thick batter of slow-burning pyrotechnic composition. That dry material is what burns and sparks once you light it.
The type of metal used in the sparkler can cause different colors to appear during the burning process. Aluminum, titanium, and magnesium will all produce white sparks, which is most popular for wedding sparklers. An iron metal fuel, on the other hand, will produce an orange effect, while iron-titanium alloys can make gold sparks. Additional chemical colorants are sometimes also added to produce greens, reds, and blues, much like fireworks.
In fact, the wire sparklers you hold in your hand are essentially like miniature fireworks on a stick. Though the scale is much smaller, most of the ingredients are the same. Oxidizers, such as potassium nitrate or chlorate, are added into the mix. These react to the heat of the fire and the oxygen of the air by decomposing the metal wire, which causes bits of the wire to fly off, producing the “sparkler” effect. The only explosive element of traditional fireworks that’s missing from sparklers is gunpowder, which is what gives fireworks their big boom.
The oxidizers are contained to the wire by using a binder. These can be made from sugar or starch, mixed with a little bit of water to form a paste that’s then left to dry. Really, that’s all there is to it: a little bit of explosive chemistry!
So when it’s time to light up your wire sparklers, don’t forget that the real magic behind the glow is just simple chemistry.