Pyrotechnics capture the imagination of people young and old. The dazzling colors and patterns of a fireworks display can add the ideal exclamation point to a holiday celebration, special event or concert. Pyrotechnics also translate to other industries; for example, the movie industry, where they can be visually arresting, plot-driving effects.
These elements may last just a few seconds but preparing highly controlled explosions is by necessity a careful, meticulous process. It’s also potentially dangerous, as one procedural lapse can cause serious long-term injuries or permanent disabilities, including burns, loss of hearing or eyesight, and loss of digits or limbs.
The dangers of pyrotechnics, and the payoff when they are safely deployed, make the pyrotechnic engineer’s role critical. These highly skilled individuals apply their knowledge of chemical engineering in a manner that minimizes potential risks. It can be an intriguing career for individuals with an engineering degree who are interested in pursuing a unique profession in the chemical engineering field. Yet there’s a lot more to the role than making things “go boom.”
What Does a Pyrotechnic Engineer Do?
Also known as pyrotechnicians, pyrotechnic engineers oversee the creation and deployment of fireworks arrangements and controlled explosions. They design, build, and execute a wide range of pyrotechnic displays. These exhibits can take the form of an intricately timed fireworks show at a sporting event or annual holiday festival. In the entertainment sector, this work can encompass anything from on-set explosions for a movie or television show to displays during a live concert.
How Chemical Engineering Applies
The pyrotechnic engineering profession itself is a creative branch of chemical engineering. Success in the position requires expertise in the chemical substances needed to create fireworks or controlled explosions. Fuels, oxidizers and reactants are combined to create five different types of pyrotechnic reactions: heat, light, sound, smoke and delay.
Pyrotechnicians must know what combination of substances creates each reaction, and how much of each substance will create the desired reaction size. They must also be adept at handling tools of the trade, including:
- Flash pots: Containers built to hold pyrotechnic powder.
- Mortar hits: Devices that create a bright, rolling ball of smoke and flame when ignited.
- Gerbs: Fireworks that produce a stream of sparks lasting up to a minute.
The element that pyrotechnic engineers must prioritize is safety. They are responsible for safely handling and storing pyrotechnics before use. It’s also crucial to have safety equipment on every pyrotechnic site. These include such things as hard hats and safety glasses to protect workers, fire extinguishers and flame retardants in case of accidents, and plastic buckets and shovels for post-show cleanup and to dispose of unexploded pyrotechnics (duds).
Additionally, pyrotechnic engineers must follow the safety standards for pyrotechnics usage as outlined by groups such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Most states also require pyrotechnic engineers to be licensed, with requirements that vary by state.
Building a safe environment is the most critical aspect of the pyrotechnic engineer’s role. Even the briefest neglect of safety measures could have disastrous, if not fatal, consequences.
Pyrotechnic Engineer Salary and Job Outlook
The compensation source PayScale reports that the median annual salary of a pyrotechnic engineer was approximately $57,000 in 2021. The precise annual salary can vary depending on education level or years of experience in the pyrotechnics or chemical engineering fields. Location can also influence salary.
The future for pyrotechnic engineers is promising. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects chemical engineers, including pyrotechnic engineers, will see 9% job growth between 2020 and 2030. This is slightly higher than the 8% job growth the BLS predicts for the labor market as a whole.
Pyrotechnic Engineer Work Environment
Because of the entertainment-based nature of the role, pyrotechnic engineers can work in a host of intriguing settings. Those who specialize in creating fireworks displays can work in a wide range of entertaining spaces. Theme parks, resorts and outdoor stadiums are all possibilities.
For those who specialize in controlled explosions, work environments often encompass movie and television sets. This can include on-location settings, which means pyrotechnic engineers may be called on to travel to different outdoor environments to build and execute pyrotechnic designs.
Pursue a Dynamic Engineering Path
Pyrotechnic engineering can be a unique, rewarding, and exciting career that uses chemical expertise to bring joy to audiences. The University of California, Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering program and its chemical engineering specialization can prepare you to be a leader in pyrotechnic engineering.
The program is designed to provide expertise in advanced kinetics, transport phenomena, thermodynamics, and other core concepts — preparing you to create grand-scale effects without compromising safety.
Learn how UC Riverside can help you apply your passion for chemical engineering in an exciting, satisfying career.