Mercury: the essentials

Mercury is the only common metal liquid at ordinary temperatures. Mercury is sometimes called quicksilver. It rarely occurs free in nature and is found mainly in cinnabar ore (HgS) in Spain and Italy. It is a heavy, silvery-white liquid metal. It is a rather poor conductor of heat as compared with other metals but is a fair conductor of electricity. It alloys easily with many metals, such as gold, silver, and tin. These alloys are called amalgams. Its ease in amalgamating with gold is made use of in the recovery of gold from its ores.

The most important salts are mercuric chloride HgC12 (corrosive sublimate - a violent poison), mercurous chloride Hg2Cl2 (calomel, occasionally still used in medicine), mercury fulminate (Hg(ONC)2, a detonator used in explosives), and mercuric sulphide (HgS, vermillion, a high-grade paint pigment).

Organic mercury compounds are important - and dangerous. Methyl mercury is a lethal pollutant found in rivers and lakes. The main source of pollution is industrial wastes settling to the river and lake bottoms.

As mercury is a very volatile element, dangerous levels are readily attained in air. Mercury vapour should not exceed 0.1 mg m-3 in air. Air saturated with the vapour at 20°C contains mercury in a concentration far greater than that limit. The danger increases at higher temperatures. It is therefore important that mercury be handled with care. Containers of mercury should be securely covered and spillage should be avoided. Mercury should only be handled under in a well-ventilated area. If you are in possession of any mercury you are advised to contact a properly qualified chemist or public health laboratory for its safe disposal.

Small amounts of mercury spillage can be cleaned up by addition of sulphur powder. The resulting mixture should be disposed of carefully.


The result of burning ammonium dichromate, (NH4)2Cr2O7, containing pellets of mercuric thiocyanate (HgCNS). This is a large scale version of the indoor firework "Serpents in the grass" (only to be demonstrated by a professionally qualified chemist following a legally satisfactory hazard asessment). Improperly done, this reaction is dangerous! Llighting not great - sorry.

Nearing Zero cartoon for mercury
Cartoon by Nick D Kim (nearingzero.net, used by permission).

Table: basic information about and classifications of mercury.

Mercury: historical information

Mercury was discovered by Known since ancient times at no data in not known. Origin of name: named after the planet "Mercury" (the origin of the symbol Hg is the Latin word "hydrargyrum" meaning "liquid silver").

Mercury was known to ancient Chinese and Hindus before 2000 BC and was found in tubes in Egyptian tombs dated from 1500 BC It was used to forma amalgams of other metals around 500 BC. The Greeks used mercury in ointments and the Romans used it, unfortunately for those using it, in cosmetics.

Mercury is one of the elements which has an alchemical symbol, shown below (alchemy is an ancient pursuit concerned with, for instance, the transformation of other metals into gold).

{{floatR}}alchemical symbol of mercury{{/floatR}}

Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for mercury is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]

Dalton's symbol for mercury

Mercury: physical properties

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Mercury: orbital properties

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Isolation

Isolation: the physical appearance of mercury is well known because of its use in many thermometers. It was common to demonstrate the formation of mercury in the laboratory by heating mercury sulphide (cinnabar, HgS) but this is strongly discouraged today because of the toxicity of mercury vapours. Don't do it! However, this method forms the basis of commercial extraction. The prepared cinnabar ore is heated in a current of air and the mercury vapour condensed.

HgS + O2 (600°C) → Hg (l) + SO2 (g)

The crude mercury is then washed with nitric acid and treated with air in order to remove impurities as oxides or into solution. Further purification is achieved by distillation at reduced pressure.

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mercury atomic number