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."
Source and productionMost 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:
The vapor is cooled and metallic mercury condenses out.
Mercury poisoningIf 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 mercuryMercury (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.
Related category INORGANIC CHEMISTRY
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