mercury (Hg)


Mercury as a liquid at room temperature.

mercury switch

In a mercury switch a pool of mercury completes an electrical circuit. Terminals are fused into a glass bulb, which can be tilted. In the "on" position the mercury flows around the terminals: in the "off" position it flows away and breaks the connection.

Mercury (Hg) is a silvery-white, poisonous, metallic element in group IIB of the periodic table, which is liquid at room temperatures. (Only three other elements, cesium, gallium, and bromine are liquid at temperatures at or close to ordinary room temperatures.) It is used in thermometers, barometers, and manometers (instruments for measuring the pressure of gases and liquids); in diffusion pumps and automatic electric switches; for electrodes; in mercury-vapor lamps; in batteries; and for extracting gold, silver, and platinum from their ores. Various compounds of mercury are used in medicine and also in agriculture to make fungicides.


Even at ordinary room temperature, mercury evaporates and the fumes are poisonous. It dissolves many metals, including sodium, potassium, tin, copper, gold, and silver) forming alloys called amalgams. As it does not amalgamate with iron, mercury is often stored in iron containers.


Mercury is fairly inert, tarnishing only slowly in moist air; and soluble in oxidizing acids only; it is readily attacked by the halogens and sulfur. It forms two series of salts, termed mercury (I), or mercurous, and mercury (II), or mercuric, compounds, and many important organometallic compounds. Various mercury compounds are used as pharmaceuticals (see below). The most common isotope is 202Hg (29.8%).


Mercury has been known since ancient times and is named after the planet Mercury and after Mercurius, the Roman messenger of the Gods. Its chemical symbol (Hg) comes from the Latin hydragyrum, "liquid silver," which has also given rise to the name "quicksilver."


atomic number 80
relative atomic mass 200.59
relative density 13.546 (at 20°C)
melting point -38.87°C (-37.97°F)
boiling point 356.6°C (673.86F)


Source and production

Most of the world's mercury is obtained from the bright red mineral cinnabar (mercury sulfide) and is chiefly found in rocks that are associated with volcanic action. It also occurs as calomel and rarely as the metal. In recent years, world production has fallen as reserves have become depleted. Italy, Slovenia, the United States and Mexico, which were formerly leading producers have been largely mined out. Most mercury production today takes place in Spain, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Tajikistan.


Mercury is extracted from cinnabar by a fairly simple process. The mineral is heated to a high temperature in a furnace and a current of air is then let in. The oxygen of the air combines with the cinnabar (HgS), forming sulfur dioxide and releasing mercury as a vapor. Expressed in chemical symbols the reaction is:


HgS + O2 → Hg + SO2.


The vapor is cooled and metallic mercury condenses out.


Mercury poisoning

If liquid mercury is swallowed, absorption via the intestines is only slight. Swallowing a small amount (e.g., from a broken thermometer) is therefore unlikely to lead to poisoning. However, liquid mercury is highly volatile and gives off a vapor that is readily absorbed into the body via the lungs. Inhalation of mercury vapor – usually as a result of industrial exposure – is the most common cause of poisoning.


Mercury poisoning may be treated by chelating agents (such as penicillamine) to help the body excrete it at a faster rate. In some cases, purification of the blood by hemodialysis may also be performed, especially if the kidneys have been damaged.


Compounds of mercury

Mercury (II) fulminate (Hg[ONC]2) is a white crystalline solid, sensitive to percussion, and used as a detonator. It is prepared by dissolving mercury in concentrated nitric acid (HNO3) and pouring the solution in ethanol (C2H5OH). Mercury (II) fulminate and mercury (II) cyanate (Hg[OCN]2) are isomers.


Mercury (II) chloride (HgCl2), or corrosive sublimate, is a colorless crystalline solid prepared by direct synthesis. Although highly toxic, it is used in dilute solution as an antiseptic, and also as a fungicide and a polymerization agent. Melting point 276°C, boiling point 302°C.


Mercury (I) chloride (Hg2Cl2) is a white rhombic crystalline solid, found in nature. It is used in ointments and formerly found use as a laxative. A calomel/mercury cell with potassium chloride electrolyte (the Weston cell) is used to provide a standard electromotive force. Melting point 303°C, boiling point 384°C.