As we all admire things loud and sparkly on the United State’s annual celebration of freedom, it seemed only fitting that our #CrystaloftheWeek (also in celebration of International Year of Crystallography) pay homage to potassium nitrate. Afterall, it’s potassium nitrate that helps put the “boom” in firecrackers and the “spark” in sparklers!
It’s the nitrate(NO3) in potassium nitrate (KNO3) that provides the oxidizer in fireworks. In other words, it produces the oxygen (that O3 part) that makes the things burn. Mix it with a binder and a fuel, and voila, you’ve got a sparkler. Add in copper chloride or some strontium salts and the next thing you know, you are building blue or red fireworks, respectively.
But potassium nitrate has many uses beyond the 4th of July. Also known as Saltpeter, potassium nitrate has long been a key ingredient in gunpowder. However, its oxidizing capabilities have made it a good fertilizer as well. Other less explosive uses of this unusually multi-purposed crystal include being an ingredient in toothpastes designed for sensitive teeth, as treatments for high blood pressure, asthma and arthritis, and as a way to preserve meat in the Middle Ages.
The Army, on more than one occasion, has been accused of putting Saltpeter in soldiers’ food and drink to reduce libidos and focus attention on military training, however even Snopes.com has declared that rumor as false. Potassium nitrate would cause serious and very apparent side effects, such as anemia, certain blood disorders and kidney damage. Additionally, it has never been proven to be an effective anaphrodisiac, having no impact on sex drives.
But one thing it does do well is help make for great fireworks displays. Happy Independence Day!
Photo credit: http://pdphoto.org