What triggered me to write this short explanatory article was that I noticed quite a few people around me had a hard time distinguishing glitter effects from strobe effects. This was especially true of people not involved in the manufacturing side of fireworks or enthusiasts who lacked important chemical knowledge of fireworks composition. Honestly, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. I hope this article makes it easier.
What exactly is glitter?
Glitter is an effect that produces a tail with a trail of flittering flashes. Glitter usually exists in two different colors of flashes: golden or white. White glitter is comprised of black powder (potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur), along with aluminum or magnalium (magnalium is a common name within the fireworks community to describe a 50/50 percent alloy of aluminum and magnesium), antimony sulphide and a binder. Of course, many other ingredients can be used as well.
Gold glitter is also comprised of black powder (potassium nitrate, charcoal, sulfur) mixed with aluminum or magnalium and antimony sulphide as a binder, plus an added source of sodium. It is the sodium that causes the glitter flashes and the yellowish tint.
How does glitter work?
Glitter is an afterburning effect. It is caused when reactive “dross” is created in the form of small droplets. Think of dross as lava in miniature. It is also sometimes referred to as slag. The oxygen in the atmosphere plays an important role coaxing dross or slag to form glitters. As these droplets fly through the air, the oxygen partly reacts with it after a short delay (this can be a fraction of a second to a second or more). A big glitter star can create a fine spray of many small glittering sparks, but it can also create a trail of fewer bigger droplets. This depends on the chemicals in the composition and the ratio of ingredients.
Lloyd Scott Oglesby introduced the term “spritzel” for reactive dross droplets. It’s important to understand and recognize that within the world of glitters there are some glitter compositions that produce a fine spray of small spritzels. And there are others that yield a spray of bigger spritzels or droplets. As a result, the glitter tail of the latter will produce a glitter tail with fewer, albeit bigger flashes.
Sometimes certain glitters make sizzling sounds. I believe this happens with glitters using magnalium alloy. Other glitters, however, are silent. Popping sounds may also occur—these often sound like miniature explosions—when reactive glitter dross hits the water.
Note: many glitter compositions should not induce too much water during the mixing process or they won’t work properly. It is not entirely clear as to why. It may be that water becomes trapped inside the stars, or that the metal powder may somehow become attacked. Another possible problem during the mixing step (dependent on the chemicals used) are that the reactions may start spontaneously when they become wet. There is even the possibility that a wet mixture might begin to heat itself up.
How can you tell the difference between glitter and twinkle and strobe?
If a strobe star falls to the ground, it will continue to strobe because strobes DO NOT require oxygen in the air to combust (not that strobes don’t require atmospheric oxygen in order to function properly). If glitter falls to the ground, it will stop producing its glitter effect because glitter DOES requires atmospheric oxygen to produce this effect. Additionally, if glitter hits the water, several small explosions might be noticeable because of the reactive “dross” that occurs on contact. For the strobe, a critical mass of reactive ash needs to build up. This reactive ash flashes off as it auto-ignites into a bright flash. While colored strobes are quite prevalent and many recipes exist to make them, some yellow strobe star effects do appear quite similar to gold strobes.
For both glitters and strobes the metal powder plays a key role as an ingredient in the composition for obtaining the desired effect. Some recipes are very sensitive to relatively small changes in the particle size. But keep in mind that effect changes occur when there is a change in the distribution curve of the particle size.
Is there a difference between Glitter and Flitter?
According to Mike Swisher there is no difference. It is the same thing.
Is Senko Hanabi a form of Glitter?
Senko Hanabi is NOT the same as Glitter. However, it appears that there may be some similarities in the way both mixtures burn. In any case, Senko Hanabi serves as a good example of a chemical combustion reaction that takes place and displays a gradual change. The following illustrations demonstrate what happens with glitter chemistry:
If you are interested in learning more about this subject or would like more information about the chemistry of glitter and strobes, I would recommend the following resources:
- Bob Winokur, “The Pyrotechnic Phenomenon of Glitter”, Pyrotechnica II, 1978
- Lloyd Scott Oglesby, “Glitter, Chemistry & Techniques”, published by the American Fireworks News, Revised Edition 1989
- Pyrotechnic Chemistry book: http://www.jpyro.com/ref-series/pyrotechnic-chemistry-book/
- Encyclopedic Dictionary of Pyrotechnics: http://www.jpyro.com/ref-series/encyclopedic-dict-pyro/
- If you’re particularly interested in pyrotechnic chemistry, I wholeheartedly recommend taking coursework like the pyroworkshops offered by Dr. Tom Smith in the UK.
This article is not intended to encourage readers to experiment with any of these mixtures mentioned, and is certainly outside the scope of this article. Just keep in mind that experimenting with chemical mixtures can be very dangerous, and there are significant risks associated with reactive chemicals like these unless you are well versed in their efficacy. So, be safe, and if you are sincerely interested in creating your own glitter or strobes, take a course and learn how to do it properly.
Interested readers can contact me by addressing questions to me through Tony Gemmink @ Pyrotechnic Magazine: Tony@PyrotechnicMagazine.com