Making, baking and decorating cakes

The past 48 hrs have been packed with even more visits and special treats. Firstly, we went along to see a Chinese pyro-musical wedding show with no bride, groom nor wedding guests. It was a trial and demonstration of a new style of show to demonstrate that smaller-scale and lower budget shows can still have impact.

The pyrotechnicians are essentially trialling the idea of off-the-shelf professional packs. There will be a variety of styles for weddings, birthdays, corporate events and so on. It may come as a bit of a surprise, but this has, apparently, not been done before. Until now, each pyro-musical show has been designed from scratch, requiring a significant budget and meaning that professional displays were not available to a lot of people. This new approach aims to make professional displays more accessible.

We were invited onto the firing site to see the rig in progress. It was an all cake show, with a few fountains included, meaning that there was no need to rig any mortars, which can be time consuming.Chinese firework rigging

The new packaged show idea uses a pre-programmed firing system, which even includes the music stored in the memory. What’s more, the system makes use of low-latency glow plugs – the fuse ends are fitted with a plastic sheath which then allow it to be clipped into the glow plug adapter. The head technician said that it had a response time of 1/50 seconds, which is barely noticeable to the human eye.

The factory doing the show allowed us to visit their production line the following day. Like several other companies, they are looking at ways of automating certain stages in the cake manufacturing process in order to meet demand.

Jack Ge and Matthew ToshFinally, we were extremely honoured to be dinner guests of Jack Ge, Senior Fireworks Artist Master, Liuyang Fireworks & Firecrackers Administration Bureau. He is one of the most senior people in the main Liuyang governing body of fireworks in China. A top bloke indeed and full of enthusiasm!

Making a shopping list

20150114_064139A really important part of the visit to Liuyang is to see product demonstrations. Every single night, I have been outside watching demos and you know what? It is bloomin’ freezing when you are sitting still for over an hour.

Some factories specialise in just one type of firework, such as aerial shells. Others produce a wider range of materials and hence the demonstrations for these can be longer. The largest one I went to featured over 70 different fireworks and effects. That’s a lot to take in and remember, and so we are given mark sheets. To a certain extent, it’s like being back in the classroom.

After two or three demos, one’s brain becomes a bit saturated and so the group comes together to review and share thoughts on all of the material seen so far.

We go through our notes whilst watching videos of the demos we’ve seen. The video is a really helpful reminder.

The conversations are around the blend of effects and the markets that they are suitable for. There are three areas that we are looking at this week: Consumer retail goods, professional fireworks and stage pyrotechnics. The requirements of each are very different. For consumer material, we have to think about the calibre, height and burst diameter. We are also considering mine effects in cakes; stars that erupt from the ground around the main projectile to fill the lower part of the sky. There is a surprising difference in quality and spread – basically, you wouldn’t want to have too large a spread on a firework if it is intended to be lit by hand!

We are also looking for symmetry of spherical bursts and consistency of height in multi-shot materials. This varied quite a lot for some manufacturers, something that I hadn’t really appreciated until now.

Lab testingSome of the more sophisticated factories have introduced detailed testing and analysis of the raw ingredients and finished powder mixtures. One factory that I visited has automated several of its processes, including installing a machine that fills cakes, ensuring that even the cardboard discs are all pushed in to the same level in every single tube. Both of these can have an effect on the performance height of a projectile.

The group has some very detailed discussions about certain fireworks, freeze-framing the video and almost doing a frame-by-frame dissection of the effects. In some cases, we’ve decided to take the mine of one and blend it with the aerial glittering effect of another. This is how much control we have over the fireworks. I can’t give any specific details as some of this is commercially sensitive information; I’ve been sworn to secrecy!

A lot of people ask me if we customise or design fireworks for import – this is exactly what is going on in this meeting.

As this particular group imports shop goods and is the largest importer of professional (Category 4) fireworks to the United Kingdom, what you see in the shops and at many UK professional displays in late Summer and Autumn 2015 will be a direct result of this meeting.

Cool, eh?

Testing. It’s all about testing.

Testing fireworksQuality control is important and regular tests are conducted by many of the factories. The larger ones seem to run batch tests from production lines almost every evening as soon as it is dark. Some tests can also be done in the day – it really depends on the type of firework and what it is that is being tested. This is what provides the background sounds in the hills around Liuyang.

Some companies have dedicated test sites. Others, well… just watch the video and learn for yourself…

I was really fortunate to speak to the head technician of Dancing Fireworks today who explained a bit about how people train in firework manufacturing. Firework testing is a key aspect of the training.

Through my interpreter, I learnt that chemistry students from nearby Changsha initially come to the factory on a three month placement. Once they graduate, they join the company as trainees and are mentored by a more senior technician.

Cake fusing machineThey start by working across the loading and production lines, to get a thorough understanding of each stage of manufacture. It’s all on-the-job training and, under supervision, the trainees are soon expected to build and test firework effects almost every day. There are industry-governed practical and written exams, especially for the more senior roles and you are expected to publish a thesis in order to become a head technician.

It takes around ten years to become fully qualified.

It is an immense industry and quite difficult to picture until I found out that there are currently 1236 firework factories in Liuyang alone.

Sounds of Liuyang city

This place is something else. Where else can you be woken at 7am by the sound of several thousand firecrackers going off or aerial shells being fired and nobody seems to turn a head?

I wanted to capture a few audio snippets and so here they are: Descriptions of the Liuyang soundscape.

Wandering around Liuyang, it soon becomes apparent that the common city sounds differ slightly from those in the UK. Apart from the obvious language differences, above the vehicle sounds, horns and general hustle-bustle of city life is the continuous sound of fireworks; sometimes in the distance and sometimes right in front of you.

Of particular note, is the experience at sunset in the surrounding hills, where most of the factories are. You might expect to hear the birds roosting and maybe spot a few bats? Not here. That’s when the serious batch testing gets underway at the larger firework factories. The thump-thump of shells going off every few seconds in adjacent valleys and beyond is rather unique.

The thing that has really struck me is the perceived normality of it all. Local residents appear to think nothing of a 100-shot noisy firework being let off on the pavement in the city centre next to a road. If you are lucky, then they stop to watch. Otherwise, people drive and cycle past; they continue with their normal everyday lives.

Factory visits

My tour of Liuyang is taking in several firework manufacturers and I’ve been whisked away to at least one factory each day already. It may surprise you that this actually is a first for me; I’ve been wanting to go to a firework factory for many years but have never been able to manage (nor afford!) a visit.

As suppliers to the UK market, the manufacturers are keen for industry members to see where and how their products are made, especially if their factory has a new bit of automated equipment or some new facilities.

Powder mills and star rolling lineAs you’d expect, most places ensure we see the showroom areas, award cabinets and certificates, but with a little bit of persuasion, two factories did allow us to visit what we call the powder lines. This is where the powders, the key ingredients such as black powder, are made.

We also saw some stars being rolled in a copper-like cement mixer. Why copper? Easy! It is non-ferrous and is not at risk of creating any sparks.

Sparks, in whatever shape or form, are generally bad news in a firework preparation area. Star rolling and powder milling are the higher-risk stages of manufacturing. As a result, these work areas are often tucked away in the hills, well away from the rest of assembly lines on the factory site.

Earthing ball close-upThe factories do have earthing spheres on poles at regular intervals around the site. The idea is that you touch the balls to remove any residual charge before entering a preparation or storage area.

Finally, you know you’ve spotted something brand new and cutting edge if the Chinese experts get excited when showing it. One such example was a new automatic cake fusing machine. Even our interpreter and agent for the tour had never seen this before. It essentially works like a giant sewing machine, punching holes in the bottom of tubes, threading through string fuse, stacking the tubes and then taping them together to form a cake.

And this is just scratching the surface of firework production. I’ve still yet to see shells being filled with stars and we haven’t been anywhere near a rocket yet…Matthew at the entrance to a firework factory

Hello from China!

Matthew with iPhone 5 firework This is a very exciting week as I am in Liuyang, the home to Chinese firework manufacturing for almost 1500 years! I am here as part of a trade visit – several firework companies are here to view and order brand new materials for the UK display and retail markets.

The visit combines tours of factories to see fireworks being made, followed by demonstrations – a combination of new customised product requests from us and new products that the Chinese are developing.

On day one, I had an opportunity to do a little bit of filming from the centre of Liuyang to give a brief flavour of what this place is like. And yes, several of you on Twitter have already said that I look like a child in a sweet shop!

It is an extraordinary place.


Something in the air

There’s definitely a chill in the air. I’ve felt it since the weekend. That sharp edge to the breeze, despite the sun beaming down and illuminating the changing tree canopies.

Autumn is here, accompanied by the annual grumbling of several of my family and friends about the nights drawing in and winter approaching. The familiar whirring of the central heating pump and doors closing to keep the heat in.
Autumn park trees
For me, however, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. It is a feeling that I get every year. The sight of the leaves turning golden and falling to the floor, reflecting the autumn sun. The earlier setting of the sun and the cool air chilling my nostrils. It means one thing to me: Bonfire Night is approaching.

This dates back to the days when my father used to take me to see the annual bonfire and firework display at the Miners’ Welfare park in Bedworth. We’d trudge through the leaves amongst the volunteers shaking their charity buckets. Once inside, I’d be the annoying five year old trying to sit on his shoulders to see over the crowds, or insist that we work our way to the front by the safety barrier. He’d remind me that the fireworks would be going up into the air and that I’d be able to see wherever we stood, but this fell on deaf ears.

Come on!

Firework display rig in SouthportI didn’t want to know what was going on in the air. I wanted to know how they got in the air and who was letting them off. I wanted to be the first to arrive to give me plenty of time to look at the firing site. What did the rig look like and could I guess what was going to happen? Yes, I know, total child geekorama and I am not ashamed to admit it.

My curiosity was fed further by being allowed to walk onto the firing site shortly after firing to have a look at the smouldering remains of the fireworks. Everyone did it back then. The idea of a child doing that now fills me with horror, having witnessed hang-fires (the delayed firing of a smouldering firework) and ground units exploding.

Little did I know that, years later, I would be one of those people working to make a display happen. What’s more, I would never have dreamed that I would be called in at short notice to work on a competition-winning firework display.

I guess it goes to show that an early interest in a subject as a child, no matter how niche or mainstream, could pave the way for something much bigger later in life. That’s why I believe in stimulating curiosity in children’s minds and allowing them to explore ideas. Discovery and learning then follow, almost self-driven, and who knows where it will take them? I’m still on my journey and am enjoying the ride.

And so my shameless, childlike excitement continues to emerge annually, triggered by those changing colours of autumn. I sincerely hope that I never grow out of this.

A quick word of thanks and congratulations should go to Steve Martin and crew at SMArt Pyrotechnics. It was great working with you all!

Say Bonfire night with flowers?

Bonfire Night is upon us and it’s one of the busiest nights of the year for us pyros. I get to spend the best part of a week working knee-deep in mud and living out of a van. However, for the discerning pyrotechnician, creating a fireworks display is a real science-art mash-up in which the night sky becomes our canvas.

We use science to entertain huge crowds. We fire colours and effects in different parts of the sky and at various heights. We use a range of effects and pace to create a contrasting and stunning sequences. As a scientist and a performer, I love all this. I love the fact that I can be creative by using some pretty fundamental bits of science.

So with this in mind, when I was approached by Interflora to help create a world first – a fireworks display made from real flowers… well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Sounds crazy? Actually, there are some very logical links. Firstly, creating a firework display is not dissimilar to arranging a spray of flowers.The way a florist balances colours and creates patterns in the bouquet.

Multi-coloured peony aerial shells.

In fact, several firework arrangements are known as bouquets. And it’s not without coincidence that there has long been a historic connection between fireworks and flowers with many of our most popular aerial effects, such as peony, dahlia and chrysanthemum, also being the names of everyday garden flowers.

The aim of the project was literally to turn history on its head, with flowers exploding to look like the fireworks that are named after them.

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The footage looks impressive, but in order to achieve what we wanted there were a number of questions we needed to answer. Firstly, we didn’t know if creating this display would even be possible; would the delicate petals burn, be scorched or shredded by the burst or lift charges? The rapid acceleration could damage them. And if they did survive the pyro, would the petals flutter or hang in the air long enough to look like a real firework display to the naked eye?

Petals are really delicate and so to achieve these results we couldn’t use anything too powerful. For example, a CO2 blaster or a “mine” effect could rip the petals apart.

With a bit of experimenting, a team of pyrotechnicians, lighting technicians, a camera crew and a super slow motion camera, we got there.

And in true Tosh-style, here’s the ‘making of’ video:

Exploding petals isn’t footage I’d ever seen before, but it worked! It looks cool and is most definitely a quirky take on the firework-flowers link. I hope you like it.

There’s more information about the project on the Interflora website.

Live stream presentation

Regular followers of my musings and Twitter posts will know that I love live events. It’s what I do in addition to presenting. Last weekend, I presented the live broadcast of the National Twelve Bell Striking Competition. Yes, it’s a rather niche event, but amongst the 30,000 or so campanologists out there, it’s the equivalent of the world championships (despite the misleading title).

At just-under seven hours, it’s the longest live session I’ve done and I’ve received mountains of positive feedback since.

The podcast files can be found here.


Bangs for the sake of bangs?

I was prompted to write this article in response to a number of comments on social media channels in the past 24 hours about pyrotechnics and explosions in chemistry outreach and science communication activities.

In case you’ve just arrived from an external site, I’ll declare my interest at the outset: I am a pyrotechnician as well as a science presenter. I am a physics graduate, not a chemistry graduate, but I use chemistry and rely on it in a lot of my work. I should also add that I broadly agree with the arguments against explosions for the sake of explosions – chemistry is far more elegant and a much broader subject and one shouldn’t attempt to represent it by a single type of demonstration… or a demonstration at all, as some may argue.

I do not wish to reduce the debate to “are pyrotechnics and explosions per se good or bad?” A little of everything in moderation and used appropriately, works well. By appropriate, I mean not including a bang just for a cheap audience thrill and “getting them on side”. I’ve seen so-called “whizz-bang” lectures that are a cluttered collection of exothermic, brightly-flashing, smokey reactions with little or no structure and, quite frankly, they bore me. I’ve also been fortunate to see some very clever lecturers and teachers build suspense, with even some of the quietest of demonstrations (the first time I saw Nylon being made springs to mind).

The challenge of a presenter or lecturer is to present a broad range of demonstrations representing different aspects of the subject. This is true for many subjects and not just chemistry.

However, I am concerned at some of the paraphrased comments and questions I’ve seen flying around on social media networks today about how pyrotechnics could be perceived as a “terrible tool for chemistry outreach”.

Pyrotechnics and pyrotechnic-type demonstrations (including explosions and stoichiometry demonstrations) cannot and should not be used as standalone representations of chemistry. It’s far too narrow an application. I think most people would agree on that. But let’s not forget that they do indeed represent valid and real applications of chemistry. I know post-doc chemists who have worked in pyrotechnics R&D and I spend a lot of time in muddy fields using their products.

Pyrotechnic devices (as we call them in the industry) are tools. Any tools or devices can be used correctly, but they can also be misused. Misuse could be downright dangerous or irresponsible use (e.g as a weapon). It could also be including a bang or flash in a lecture for the sake of it because it’s chemistry and that’s what the audience expects to see. Overuse is a misuse.

Audiences expect it because over the years we’ve allowed the bangs to become the main stars of our demonstrations and have hence allowed the perception to develop.

I am regularly asked to present lectures about the science behind professional firework displays and stage effects. My area of interest is how both chemistry and physics underpin the range of visual and aural effects, not to mention how we make it all happen with technology, engineering and maths. I’m absolutely clear from the outset that I’m presenting a very specific application of the sciences. The main aim is to highlight how Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) play important roles in the creative and entertainment industries – pyrotechnics being just one aspect of this broader industry.

Matthew Tosh demonstrating an application of chemistry

© Matthew Lord 2013 |

In most of my lectures, I only include one actual explosion and its primary purpose is to demonstrate a physical principle; i.e. that of a supersonic shockwave. Yes, it’s loud and the maximum pressure is selected to match the size of the venue and age of the audience. I won’t lie; it’s a great demonstration and I really enjoy doing it. It usually features in a series of demonstrations relating to reaction rates and rates of energy release. However, if I’m not doing anything about shockwaves, then I rarely include an explosion.

The colour chemistry can get very detailed, depending on the age of the audience I’m talking to. It’s a great way of demonstrating aspects of physical chemistry, electron energy levels and competing emission spectra. Pyrotechnic whistles are fascinating, but bizarrely illustrate more physics than actual chemistry.

I’m trying not to sound too defensive. I am obviously biased towards pyrotechnics as I’ve been working with them for over seven years. My passion for them is driven by the fact that there is a wealth of chemistry and physics at play behind the scenes.

Chemistry cannot be communicated with pyrotechnics alone, but to badge them broadly as a terrible tool for chemistry outreach is misleading.

If deploying carefully selected pyrotechnic effects and demonstrations helps open a young person’s mind to some of the possibilities and wider applications of the STEM subjects and why it is important to get a good GCSE grade (or equivalent) in these subjects, then I will have achieved my aim as a science presenter.

A terrible tool? I’d argue that it is the operator who is at fault, not the tool.