Happy Chinese New Year! But wait — beware of firecrackers

Fireworks light up the sky of Pudong, Shanghai, China

During the Chinese New Year, setting off firecrackers is necessary for many traditional Chinese families. Not only is it an ancient symbol of expelling evil spirits but it produces a joyful atmosphere in which people embrace a happier life for the upcoming new year. While adults set off large fireworks, children play with small firecrackers. From time to time people get themselves blown up, resulting in serious injuries. So we can’t help but ask, why are firecrackers so powerful?

The answer lies in the black powder, an ancient type of gunpowder, inside the firecrackers. It is widely believed that black powder was invented in China. During the 9th century, this explosive matter was accidentally discovered by Chinese Taoist alchemists in search for an elixir of immortality (Wikipedia, 2016).

This is the very black powder

The black powder is a mixture consisting of three kinds of matter, sulfur (S), charcoal (C), and saltpeter (potassium nitrate, KNO3) with proper ratio. When ignited, a type of chemical reaction called reduction-oxidation (redox) begins and emits a large amount of nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide within a short period. The chemical equation is:

A redox is “a chemical reaction in which the oxidation states of atoms are changed” (Wikipedia, 2016). In the case above, carbon as a simple substance on the left has a valence of 0, while it is of valence +4 in carbon dioxide on the right, so it is oxidized, while the valences of both sulfur and nitrogen decrease, so they are both reduced.

Nevertheless, gunpowder is not the only place where reduction-oxidation reaction applies. It is not rare to see someone trying to put out the blasting fuse by only to end up with failure and explosion. In fact, the oxidizer of a blasting fuse is not oxygen gas but something inside the blasting fuse itself, which is why a blasting fuse never goes off no matter how hard one nips it by fingers. The safe way is to cut the blasting fuse or pour water over it.

Although firecrackers are the indispensable part of Chinese New Year, there is a lot that we can do to avoid injuries. First, buy firecrackers made by qualified producer and from qualified dealers. Second, leave it as far as possible after ignition. Third, children had better not play with fireworks.

Wish you a happy and safe new year!




Gunpowder. (2017, February 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:34, February 2, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gunpowder&oldid=763262668

Mountbatten, L. (2012). Black Powder in a Glass Jar. [image] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder  [Accessed 2 Feb. 2017].

Redox. (2017, February 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:36, February 2, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Redox&oldid=763256960


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