Green crackers not yet ready for sale

Sivakasi: A woman employee making crackers at a factory in Sivakasi district in Tamil Nadu. The firecrackers business may be hit by crores due the ban on its sale in Delhi National Capital Region till October 31. PTI Photo(PTI10_10_2017_000181B)PTI10_10_

A month after the 2017 Supreme Court (SC) judgement banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi National Capital Region, Union Science Minister Harsh Vardhan threw a challenge to the scientists attending the India International Science Festival in Chennai asking them to develop less-polluting crackers that won’t take away the fun of Diwali celebration.

Within a year, two Council of Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories responded. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur developed three products besides modifying the flower pots – an all time favourite with the kids. Down South, Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CECRI), Karaikudi too made the flower pot cracker less polluting and created two additional crackers that will have less harm on the environment.

In an independent exercise, a third group at the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), Mohali created two green crackers – a rocket using discarded plastic bottles and a bomb. While CECRI products emit less smoke, the IISER scientist claims his items are smoke-free.

What made these crackers less harmful? Take the example of flower pots. They contain alkali nitrates, aluminium powders of different grain sizes and a binder to enhance luminescence. Aluminium has been used as a primary source of heat, and to produce flash. The conventional ones also use barium nitrate, which has been forbidden by the apex court.

In the green alternative, NEERI used zeolite – a widely available chemical – in place of barium nitrate. To reduce the ignition temperature and minimise the emission of particulate matters, magnesium has also been used as a viable alternative at CECRI. “The flower pot developed by CECRI using eco-friendly materials reduces the emission of particulate matter by 25-30%. The cost would also be 10-15% lower as we don’t use aluminium,” CECRI director Vijay Mohanan Pillai told DH.

The manufacturers, however, flagged safety concerns while working with magnesium. “Using magnesium in fireworks will expose factories to frequent accidents since even a drop of water on magnesium powder would result in a blast,” said
P Ganesan, director of Sonny Vinayaga Fireworks in Sivakasi.

Besides the flower pots, NEERI developed three green crackers — Safe Water Releaser (SWAS); Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL) and Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR). SWAS eliminates use of potassium nitrate and sulphur with 30-35% reduction of particulate matter whereas STAR eliminates use of nitrate and sulphur with 35-40% reduction in particulate matter. SAFAL has minimal usage of aluminium leading to 35-40% reduction in particulate matter. There would be a significant reduction in the emission of oxides of sulphur and nitrogen gases that pollute the air. The crackers produce matching sounds when compared with the commercial ones found in the market.

While the green crackers were developed by keeping the manufacturers in the loop and demonstrating the cracker’s performance to them, several producers in Sivakasi argue that the existing set of chemicals are absolutely essential for the industry. “Barium nitrate is the most crucial for fireworks without which not even a sparkler can be produced. Sparkler, flower pots, pencil and other colour producing fireworks are the ones which are sold more than crackers,” Ganesan said.

The SC, however, was quite categorical in its ruling. “Barium salts in the fireworks are banned,” asserted the apex court after taking into consideration barium’s adverse impacts on human health.

Notwithstanding the developments in the two CSIR laboratories and a dialogue with the manufacturers, no technology has actually been transferred to the manufacturer because the regulatory agency, Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation, is yet to certify the products after testing their safety, stability and other aspects.

The IISER initiative, on the other hand, has not yet reached the manufacturers. It began in 2016 as a fun project to develop a science kit for youngsters. Within a year, team leader Samrat Ghosh developed green and reusable rockets (named Firefly-1) using discarded PET bottles and a bomb, christened as Baaz-Baaji (lightning fire-crackers in Bengali). He claimed his crackers are super-green because they don’t emit any smoke and particulate matter and the manufacturing process is green. Asked about the chemicals used in these firecrackers, Ghosh refused to disclose the details as the recipes are yet to be intellectually protected but underlined that forbidden chemicals are not used. The cost, he said, would be less than Rs 5 per cracker. This Diwali, he intends to give it to people living in the IISER campus and get their feedback before going ahead with mass production.

Not everyone in the industry is sceptical about the future. N Elangovan, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Fireworks Traders Association, sounds positive. “The industry will not die. We may have a temporary setback, but we will bounce back,” he said, stressing that alternative chemicals to produce fancy crackers would be found eventually.

(With inputs from E T B Sivapriyan)

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