What minerals are used in fireworks?

Fireworks get their different colors from different chemical compounds, each of which comes from certain mineral resources. Image Credit: Ronald Carlson. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=90675&picture=fireworks

Every Fourth of July, hundreds of millions of pounds of fireworks are set off across the United States. The bang, flash, sparkle, and colors of fireworks all come from specific minerals[1,2], which come from all over the United States and the rest of the world.

Explosions: gunpowder – the explosions in most fireworks still use traditional gunpowder, composed of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur, and charcoal. Potassium is largely imported from Canada, though some is mined in New Mexico and Utah[3]. Most domestic sulfur production comes from Louisiana and Texas[3]; it’s the sulfur that gives fireworks their characteristic smell.

Flashes and bangs: aluminum powder – 31% of U.S. aluminum consumption comes from recycling. Aluminum ore is imported from many countries around the world, but the largest single source is Jamaica[3].

Sparks: iron filings – 98% of the iron ore mined in the United States comes from Michigan and Minnesota[3]. Recycling is also a major source of iron and steel.

Colors

The following colors each come predominantly from different compounds of a single element. Common compounds are nitrates, carbonates, chlorides, chlorates, and oxalates[2].

Red: strontium – most strontium in the United States comes from celestite[3]. The United States does not mine any strontium ore, relying on imports for 100% of its supply, mostly from Mexico[3].

Blue: copper – lots of copper ore is mined in the United States, 99% of which comes from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Montana, and Michigan[3].

Green: barium – most barium comes from the mineral barite. The United States imports 78% of the barite it uses, mostly from China[3].

Yellow: sodium – sodium nitrate provides a particularly bright yellow flame. Most sodium nitrate comes from the Atacama desert in Chile and Peru[1], but it is also synthesized industrially from other sodium compounds.

Other colors are commonly produced from mixtures of compounds:

  • Orange = strontium + sodium (some calcium compounds can also produce orange colors)
  • Purple = strontium + copper
  • Silver-white = titanium, zirconium, and magnesium alloys

References

1 The Elements of a Dazzling Fourth of July U.S. Geological Survey
2 Table of Standard Fireworks Chemicals U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
3 Mineral Commodity Summaries 2017 U.S. Geological Survey

Learn More:

  • Mineral Commodity Summaries (Report), U.S. Geological Survey
    Annual mineral commodity summaries for all minerals tracked by the National Minerals Information Center.
  • Mineral Resources Program (Website), U.S. Geological Survey
    Homepage of the U.S. Geological Survey's Mineral Resources Program, with a wide variety of information on mineral usage, national and international production and flows, recycling, and much more.
  • Fireworks Information Center (Website), U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
    Information on fireworks safety, with injury statistics, safety tips, and additional resources.