What Gives Fireworks Colour?

Using spectroscopy helps us figure out what's inside those fireworks, but it's also got applications all the way in outer space.


I hope that everyone enjoyed a lovely Canada Day, possibly ending with a gorgeous display of fireworks. Since childhood, I have been mesmerized by these fantastic explosions. Have you ever wondered what gives fireworks their dazzling colours?

Fireworks manufacturers have this down to a science, and researchers are also using the principles of flame colour to study the early universe!

When different materials burn, their flames all have signature colours. As the Sci Guys explain in the video below, the process of using colour to find out information about what is being burned is called emission spectroscopy. They demonstrate the flame colours of several metals, several of which are commonly used in fireworks, including:

  • Sodium (bright yellow)
  • Potassium (light purple/violet)
  • Boron+sodium (light green/teal)
  • Copper(II) sulphate (dark green)
  • Calcium (dark orange)
  • Strontium (bright red)

See the flame colours of various metals
Video courtesy of Sci Guys

This idea goes beyond pyrotechnic displays of national pride; knowing what materials burn certain colours not only helps us control the colours of flames, but also helps us identify unknown materials as they burn.

Meteors are icy fragments of comets and asteroids from the early solar system that burn up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. As they streak across the sky, we can use emission spectroscopy to tease apart their contents.

If you want to learn more, our R2R interview with rockstar Prof. Margaret Campbell-Brown is being featured in an exclusive interview on the Discovery Science Canada.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.