Picking Eco Friendly Fireworks for a Green Celebration

We all know dogs and babies are afraid of firework performances. But it’s not just them who want this explosive tradition to go away. Environmental activists, also called “killjoys”, have sought to officially forbid them. But is there any compromise – say, eco friendly fireworks – that could make everyone happy? Look no more. We have what you’re looking for.

Why Ban Fireworks

According to these green organizations, fireworks do nothing more than simply fill lakes and rivers with a toxic concoction. It sounds terrible when you put it like that, which is why the solutions we propose today won’t do away with the entertaining displays. Get ready for some green fireworks!

A panel of researchers at the U.S. Army’s Pyrotechnics Technology and Prototyping Division at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, has found some alternatives. The main problem in traditional fireworks has to do with the oxidizer, a troublesome chemical component that fires the colorful explosion. Luckily, there are more eco-friendly replacements available.

Evidently, the research team led by Jesse Sabatini and Jared Moretti is less interested in the 4th of July pyrotechnic celebrations – or the ones exploding on 5th of November all throughout the UK. Their main interest is finding solutions for various military applications, in the likes of battlefield flares. These lifesaving uses are obviously front and center, but Moretti thinks the new alternatives could also potentially improve “civilian fireworks applications.”

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Health Risks

Oxidizers are a particular chemical category of aggregates featuring high levels of oxygen. That’s why they’re so commonly used to set fire to the mixtures of fireworks. Nitrates, chlorates, and perchlorates are the most widespread, and they’re not all good. For instance, potassium nitrate was used in early gunpowder recipes. Sodium chlorate, on the other hand, is a popular herbicide, famous for killing weeds in homemade concoctions. There are currently many uses for barium nitrate or barium potassium perchlorate playing the role of oxidizer in civilian and military pyrotechnic equipment.

However, the truth is that both chemicals have harmful effects on humans and natural environment. The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is studying the ways perchlorate substitutes iodide when absorbed into the thyroid gland. This consequence leads to potential disturbances in the release of hormones. Meanwhile, researchers also believe it can bring about abnormalities in human embryos.

In addition, the EPA has placed strict limits on perchlorate concentrations in fresh water, which has obstructed U.S. military training. The same regulation may also cause obstacles in the use of firework displays in civilian settings. But the list of harmful effects goes on.

Barium is no less of a health risk. Not only does it obstruct normal heart function, but it also inhibits the air passages and impairs breathing. Apart from flares, the U.S. Army uses both barium nitrate and potassium perchlorate in an inflammatory compound called IM-28. This compound clothes armor-penetrating bullets so that a luminous flash will mark the collision point.

Burning Question

Considering the effects, Moretti and his fellow researchers were determined to uncover a greener replacement for the IM-28 oxidizer. They have already tested out barium-free nitrates as an alternative, focusing in particular on sodium nitrate. But there’s another problem with sodium nitrate that makes it unfeasible. Sodium nitrate – just like strontium nitrate, another potential candidate – is hygroscopic. It means that it immediately absorbs water vapor from the air because the mixture is water soluble. If the firework equipment containing these compounds were to be stocked for a long time, the substance is likely to become damp and fail to ignite.

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Fortunately, Moretti’s team has now identified successful alternatives, which lack the health hazards of traditional oxidizers and overcome the moisture-sensitivity issue. But it’s not an easy task, because researchers are not just looking for another ignition-starting mixture. It must also create a bright flash – preferably a white light – and be common enough to be affordable. The compound shouldn’t set off too effortlessly, either. Otherwise, the U.S. army (or civilian pyrotechnical agents) will have to deal with fireworks and flares going off while in the box.

Is there something to fulfill all these requirements? Yes. Researchers found that potassium and sodium periodate are similar to perchlorates. The crucial difference, however, is that the chlorine atoms are replaced by iodine. In terms of health toxicity, the team showed perchlorate ions can push out thyroid iodide ions as they are similar in size. Meanwhile, periodate ions – which are significantly bigger – cannot replace the iodide in a similar fashion.

A Green Army

It’s one thing to try to make eco friendly fireworks. The health and environmental benefits speak for themselves. But it’s a little peculiar to talk of green military advancements, isn’t it? This stuff is meant to be used in warfare conflicts – possibly in lethal missions – yet, researchers are concerned about it harming the environment. But it appears the researchers working on this technology are aware of the seeming irony.

“I know, some people think it is an oxymoron”, one has said. “But it’s hardly cynical to say that, since armed conflicts do occur whether you like it or not, one would rather not pollute the environment afterwards for civilians.”

In line with this perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense has become increasingly concerned with making military technology greener. In October 2011, it has released a ‘statement of need’ calling for further research on ‘environmentally advantaged submunitions’. In other words, the DOD is looking for more proposals on ‘green’ explosives. One of the main problems lies with the primer that detonates the bullet-thrusting explosive in small guns. As it commonly contains lead, the toxic material sticks around in shooting ranges and builds up in the blood stream of police officers and trainee soldiers.

High explosives have their problems, too. Although military operations rarely use it anymore, TNT is a confirmed carcinogen. Its most prevalent alternatives, RDX and HMX, are not much better. Researcher found they may cause reproductive problems as well as neurological defects. Therefore, any advances in the green technology may help the U.S. Army be more responsible towards its soldiers and officers.

The innovative green oxidizers – useful for eco friendly fireworks – represent just another aspect of this trend. While applications are still scarce, they surely appeal to friendly pyrotechnics, too.

Header Image: squarespace.com

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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