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Four Explosive Advancements for Future Fireworks

From color to sound, the next-gen fireworks are sure to wow

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smithsonian.com

Sometime between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese chemists stumbled upon gunpowder and the long history of fireworks began. The celebratory rockets spread around the world, morphing from simple firecrackers to the bright blossoming showers of color that wow watchers around the world today.

Fireworks in the 21st century are still essentially the same as they ever were—a shell full of gunpowder that launches a payload of black powder and chemically treated “stars” into the sky. But technology has added a few twists in the last decade, creating new shapes, brighter colors and better choreography. In Japan, building and launching elaborate fireworks has even become a competitive sport, adding new meaning to the phrase “the beautiful game.” Here are a few things to look out for in the future of fireworks:

Silent Fireworks

For many people the best part of a fireworks display is the big-decibel booms. But not everyone is interested in the noise; in fact, Steph Yin at The New York Times writes that more and more areas are outlawing noisy aerial shows in order to reduce stress on animals and livestock, protect people’s hearing and comply with local ordinances.

That has led to the rise of “quiet fireworks” displays in Europe. Yin reports there aren’t new quiet rockets, just shows designed with existing shells that don’t make quite as much bang. The practice could make fireworks more child-friendly and protect people with PTSD, writes Kate Horowitz at Mental Floss. The town of Collecchio, Italy passed a quiet fireworks ordinance earlier this year and a wedding venue in Great Britain has gone silent-fireworks only, she reports.

Daytime Fireworks

Traditionally, fireworks need the backdrop of a dark night sky to really pop. But Ian Hardy at the BBC reports that corporate requests for daytime displays are pushing fireworks makers to create displays that can be visible during the day. That means making colors brighter and even adding other display options like Flogos, corporate logos or designs made out of foam bubbles.

Most daytime displays are still no match for nighttime boomers. But Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, the architect of the fireworks show at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is on the right track. In 2011 he showed how a daytime show could go with “Black Ceremony,” a fireworks display celebrating the opening of the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. The show included over 8000 shells that made puffs of deep black and pastel colored smoke in the shape of a rainbow.

Bluer Blues

Fireworks were remained yellow or orange for several centuries until Italian pyrotechnicians began fiddling with the recipe, writes Shannon Hall for Nautilus. They added trace amounts of metals to expand the rainbow of their displays. But the one thing that has eluded fireworks makers to this day is a consistently deep blue tone.

Colors like red, green and orange are easy to produce, John Conkling, former director of the American Pyrotechnics Association tells Audie Cornish at NPR. The copper compound used to produce blues, however, is finicky, and destroys the color if temperatures get too hot.

“It’s a bit like playing The Price is Right, because as you raise the flame temperature, the colors get brighter and brighter, but if you get too hot, then you destroy the [metal] species that’s emitting the color, and you just get a washed-out white,” Conkling tells Hall. “You have to balance.”

But Conkling says that more precise temperature control means good pyrotechnicians can produce blue more consistently than ever before. And he’s confident the secret to a simpler, more stable blue is around the corner. “It’s lurking somewhere out there,” he tells Hall. “It just hasn’t been found yet.” 

3-D Choreography

Fireworks choreographed to music have been around for decades, but since the turn of the century electronically controlled shows are allowing designers to time their shells down to the millisecond. Chris Gaylord at The Christian Science Monitor reports that, in contrast, hand-lit shells take four or five seconds to launch.

Computer simulations and 3-D modeling allows pyrotechnicians to view their shows from various audience perspectives and to try out new ideas digitally, according to Alyssa Danigelis at IQ. Advanced programs like Visual Show Director compensate for wind and gravity. Designers can combine their blasts with  musical scores then load the data into a firing computer that runs the actual show.

This allows creation of new, breathtaking choreography, explains Gaylord, such as the 300-foot Transient Rainbow, which is the explosion of 1,000 synced shells in just 15 seconds.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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