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.

Science and Ink cartoon for mercury
Cartoon by Nick D Kim ([Science and Ink], used by permission).


Mercury: historical information

Mercury was discovered by known since ancient times in unknown at 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 around us Read more »

Mercury has no biological role but is widespread in the biosphere and in food chains, including ours.

Mercury only occurs rarely as the free element in nature. Overall, it is a rare element in the earth's crust. Its main source is cinnabar ore (HgS) from Spain and Italy. The Almaden mine in Spain has been in continuous operation since 400 BC. Other sources include Yogoslavia, Russia, and North America.

Abundances for mercury in a number of different environments. More abundance data »
Location ppb by weight ppb by atoms Links
Universe 1 0.006 Chemical elements abundance by weight in the universe on a miniature periodic table spark table
Crustal rocks 67 7 Chemical elements abundance by weight in the earth's crust on a miniature periodic table spark table
Human (no data) ppb by weight (no data) atoms relative to C = 1000000 Chemical elements abundance by weight in humans on a miniature periodic table spark table

Physical properties Read more »

Heat properties Read more »

Crystal structure Read more »

The solid state structure of mercury is: rhombohedral.

Mercury: orbital properties Read more »

Mercury atoms have 80 electrons and the shell structure is The ground state electronic configuration of neutral Mercury is [Xe].4f14.5d10.6s2 and the term symbol of Mercury is 1S0.


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.

Mercury isotopes Read more »

- Mercury isotopes are mainly used in the study of the deposition and emission of Hg in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In one experiment in Canada three different Hg isotopes (Hg-198, Hg-200 and Hg-202) were used to find out how the route of entry of mercury to an ecosystem affects the amount that becomes accumulated in fish. Several other trials using Hg isotopes are, or have been, undertaken in lakes in the US and Canada. Hg-202 is also used for the production of radioactive Hg-203 which is used for gamma radiation calibration.

Table. Stables isotopes of mercury.
Isotope Mass
(atom %)
spin (I)
moment (μ/μN)
196Hg 195.965807 (5) 0.15 (1) 0
198Hg 197.966743 (4) 9.97 (20) 0
199Hg 198.968254 (4) 16.87 (22) 1/2 0.5058852
200Hg 199.968300 (4) 23.10 (19) 0
201Hg 200.970277 (4) 13.18 (9) 3/2 -0.560225
202Hg 201.970617 (4) 29.86 (26) 0
204Hg 203.973467 (5) 6.87 (15) 0

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