Barry McNamara  |   Published June 27, 2016

The science of fireworks

Monmouth College trio a big part of western Illinois displays
  • Fireworks are more than just a pretty sight. Each shell is a combination of fine-tuned science and theatrical performance. (photo credit: “Fireworks Night” by Leaping Faith)
For most people, the Fourth of July is a time to relax and enjoy fireworks.

For three members of the Monmouth College community, however, the Fourth of July is a busy time of the year. That’s because in addition to their work at the College, they are also professionals who design and launch fireworks displays.

Monmouth’s Mark Ogorzalek, Brad Sturgeon and Steve Distin work to ensure that the art of fireworks shows are backed by sound science.

Ogorzalek, who is the College’s electrician, has been involved with fireworks displays for about a quarter-century. An associate professor of chemistry, Sturgeon has six years of experience, and Distin, the chemistry lab manager, got his start last summer. All three work for J&M Displays.

Sturgeon said that fireworks range from a three-inch shell, which flies about 300 feet into the air, to a “pretty hefty” 12-inch shell, which rises 1,200 feet. The specialty shells, such as willows and happy-face cubes, cost between $30 and $100 apiece.

“Every firework that’s shot is not meant to be the most spectacular,” Sturgeon said of the art of designing a show. “You need to have some of the regular ones to make the specialty ones really stand out.”

Sturgeon – who has already served as a “pyrotechnician” this summer at a pair of community celebration fireworks displays – will work with four more displays in western Illinois over the July 4 weekend, beginning July 2 in Oak Run and concluding July 5 in Savanna. Although he won’t be present for Monmouth’s July 4 display – he’ll be working in Hennepin while Distin fires the Monmouth show – he said local residents are in for a treat.

“In Monmouth, in the past, it’s been a hand-fired display,” he said. “You have to light each individual fuse, then quickly stand back before moving on the next one. For the first time in recent history, Monmouth will have an electronically-fired show. People are going to be freaked out. There’s going to be something in the air all the time.”

Sturgeon said the panel for such a show typically has 100 switches, with four settings for each.

“The timing is a big part of the show,” he said. “Watching Mark run the panel for one of those is like watching a conductor leading a symphony.”

While an electrician’s skills help ensure a good show, chemistry is also at work.

“I have an appreciation for the energetics of chemistry,” Sturgeon said. “I use fireworks as an example in my classes. It’s a way to engage with students. … I like fireworks just like the next guy. But the real interest for me is in the details of how things work.”

One way they work is to draw colors from various elements on the periodic table. Strontium, for example, makes fireworks red, while copper produces green and sodium makes yellow.

“That’s a fundamental part of understanding quantum mechanics,” Sturgeon said. “I use that in a couple different venues in my classes.”

Mercury and lead can also be used, but Sturgeon said a push is being made to phase out such elements and replace them with organic materials.

“If a student had an interest in experimenting with that, I could certainly help them,” he said.

Another science that is involved with a good – and safe – fireworks display is meteorology.

“Steve, Brian (Daw) and Mark are all meteorology freaks,” Sturgeon said.

Daw served as a spotter in Kirkwood, and Sturgeon was a spotter at the edge of the crowd, remaining in contact with Daw so the crew could respond if wind-blown debris or embers became an issue.

“For the show we just did in Kirkwood, the wind really picked up at the time of the show,” Sturgeon said. “We needed to angle the mortars away from the crowd and angle them more into the wind.” Emily Boyer of Tri States Public Radio interviews professor Brad Sturgeon
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