The Fourth of July commemorates independence, liberty, and opportunity. But it’s also about fireworks. Lots of fireworks.
The sparkler you purchase in town may not seem that powerful, but if you gathered all the fireworks Americans will set off this week they’d weigh more than the Statue of Liberty, cost more than a Powerball jackpot, and release more energy than 100,000 bolts of lightning.
How many fireworks are we talking about?
During last year’s Fourth of July celebrations, Americans lit about 200 million pounds worth of fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnic Association. How much is 200 million pounds? Heavier than the Washington monument and four times the weight of the USS Intrepid.
How much money do we spend on these things?
How much firepower do all these fireworks have?
Fireworks are filled with an explosive material called “black powder,” or what used to be called gunpowder. They need black powder to get off the ground and additional powder to burst into beauty.
About 50 percent of an average consumer firework consists of black powder and other, similar explosives, according to Mike Hiskey, a Ph.D. in explosive chemistry whose company, DMD systems, made fireworks for the Sochi Olympics. With professional devices, it’s more like 90 percent.
Putting those numbers together, we can calculate that inside the 200 million pounds of fireworks there is about 110 million pounds of black powder. And 110 million pounds of black powder contains about 140 terajoules of energy, according to Hiskey. (A joule is a basic unit of energy, just like a meter is a basic unit of length. A terajoule is a trillion joules.) That is more energy than 100,000 lightning bolts.
Does this mean fireworks are extremely dangerous?
Fireworks can be quite dangerous. In 2014, 11 people died as a result of firework injuries and 10,500 were injured.
The risks are particularly acute for young children, because even small fireworks can be more powerful than they appear. The seemingly benign sparklers, for instance, can burn as hot as 2,000 degrees.
What else should I be watching for?
Last year, Boston’s big fireworks show included about 5,000 pounds of explosive material, which roughly translates to the same amount of energy your heart will expend during your entire lifetime.
Ultimately, though, it’s not the energy that captivates. It’s the bursting beauty of the sky, with its rich colors, stunning sounds, and evanescent shapes. High-quality fireworks rely on a blend of art and science, and the recipes behind them are often closely guarded secrets, handed down from master to apprentice over years and generations.
Still, as you peer up at the blazing sky this Fourth of July, it’s worth keeping in mind the magnitude of American’s passion for fireworks. To celebrate independence day, we set off a massive nationwide explosion that turns 200 million pounds of raw material into a rich display of light, sound, and power.