Red White and Boom – It’s in the Atoms

Whether fireworks are red, blue, green, or fuchsia depends on the chemicals used. But the reason for the variety of colors resides in the structure of different chemicals at the atomic level.

An atom consists of a nucleus surrounded by a bunch of electrons. When the atom is heated, electrons become more energetic and occupy higher energy levels. It may sound complicated, but electrons are much like small children. Electrons at lower energy levels are napping children. Electrons at higher energy levels are hyperactive children.

More energetic electrons will tend to fall to a lower energy level – even the most hyper child will eventually calm down. But in order for the child to calm down, the child first releases a lot of energy by running around and making a lot of noise. Likewise, an electron can only fall to a lower energy level by releasing energy. And it does so in the form of light.

Each chemical used in fireworks displays has a unique set of energy levels. The unique set of energy levels means electrons must release different amounts of energy, corresponding to different frequencies. And different frequencies of light are just different colors.

Ohio State University Professor of Physics Frank De Lucia helps run the fireworks show in Worthington. He says heating materials at different temperatures results in different colors.

“Depending on how hot you get the material, you excite different energy levels and so you at some level can tune the color you get out by determining how hot you get these different elements,” says De Lucia.

De Lucia’s show starts at around 10 PM on Tuesday.

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