Mercury element, discovery properties, and uses

Written by Adeel Abbas

Mercury (chemical symbol Hg, atomic number 80) is a heavy, silvery metal with a low melting point. It should not be confused with quicksilver. The other elemental form of mercury-known as the red form-is actually a mineral known as cinnabar that has been used by humans since antiquity for decorative purposes.

image showing detail about mercury element

Discovery of mercury

The discovery of mercury properties can likely be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who were thought to have discovered the liquid nature of the element when it spilled onto the ice during transport. According to legend, ice was stored in earthenware jars until it partially melted during hot weather. Upon noticing that the ice had turned into a mysterious liquid substance, the Egyptians are said to have found the pure metal form that they named quicksilver.

Also read: Sodium element-Discovery, properties, and uses

Another likely contributor was the ancient Chinese who had derived quicksilver properties by mixing cinnabar with sulfur and saltpeter, heating it over a flame, and collecting any condensate that formed on walls during this process. They had noted that the properties of this substance were similar to those of naturally occurring substances like sulfur and arsenic, but also that it was unique.

Charactreistic properties of Mercury

  • Mercury is a very unique element, as it is the only one that is liquid at room temperature. It is also very heavy and shiny. Mercury can be found in a free state, but it is usually found in ores. It is most commonly found in cinnabar, livingstonite and corderoite. Mercury is very poisonous, and even small doses can be fatal.
  • Talking about the chemical properties of mercury, it has a great affinity for other metals such as gold and silver. Mercury becomes amalgamated when combined with other metals. It is also very volatile, which means that it can easily become a vapor at room temperature. This chemical property makes mercury particularly dangerous because the vapor can be inhaled very easily and passed into the bloodstream.
  • Talking about the physical properties of mercury, we saw that it is shiny and heavy for its size; however we should mention that while it appears to be denser than water, in reality its density is only slightly greater than that of water.
  • Its boiling point is 356°F, which makes it one of only three elements that are liquid near room temperature along with bromine and iodine.
  • The vapor pressure of mercury is very high, so it is easy to turn it into a gas.

Uses of Mercury

1: Mercury is used in thermometers because it is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature.

2: Mercury is also used in barometers because it expands and contracts with changes in air pressure.

3: Mercury can be used in dental fillings, but it is not used as often anymore because it is poisonous.

4: Mercury can also be used in manufacturing batteries.

5: Mercury was once commonly used to extract gold and silver from ores, but this use has been mostly phased out.

6: Mercury was also used in the past to make cinnabar.

7: One last use of mercury is scientific instruments, such as semiconductor detectors and ionization gauges.

What are safty precautions when dealing with mercury?

Some basic safety precautions when dealing with mercury include:

  • Wear gloves and a lab coat when handling mercury
  • Avoid contact with skin, eyes, and mouth
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while working with mercury
  • Clean up any spills immediately using a wet cloth
  • Store mercury in a secure container when not in use
  • Dispose of mercury properly at a designated recycling center.

How to dump Mercury

Mercury has many uses, some that are helpful and others that can be dangerous. Some of the ways to dump mercury waste may be helpful to you, while others may require special equipment.

To dump mercury without specialized equipment, simply pour it down your drain or sink. Make sure the drain is not connected to anything important so the mercury can do no damage. If you live near an ocean or river, pour it onto the open ground away from people and animals (and any water sources). Mercury is very heavy and will sink into the ground quickly once released - do not give it time to evaporate before this happens.

As long as there are no tools around which contain their own mercury switches (like smoke detectors), then putting them in a garbage bag is a safe way to get rid of them. If there are tools with mercury switches, you will need to take special precautions.

FAQs about Mercury

1: What chemical properties does Mercury have?  

It has a few different chemical properties that come into play when talking about its uses and history. A little bit of mercury can be very toxic because it can cause damage to the brain and kidneys. When heated, mercury forms a white vapor with a unique odor detectable by most people at concentrations as low as 0.01 parts per million (ppm). This vapor will react readily with gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and tellurium to form an amalgam.

2: How was Mercury first discovered?

Mercury was first discovered by the Romans who used it as a medicine. It was also used in cosmetics, soaps, and creams.

3: Is Mercury poisonous?

Yes, mercury is poisonous and can cause brain damage and kidney damage. Ingesting even a small amount of mercury can be fatal.

4: What is the most common isotope of Mercury?

The most common isotope of mercury is Hg-204 with 80 protons and 122 neutrons.

5: How does Mercury react with other elements?

Mercury can act as a reducing agent when it is in contact with certain metals. It will easily reduce many metals, such as cadmium and zinc, to their elemental form.

6: Does Mercury ever occur naturally?

Yes! Some people think of mercury only in its liquid state (which does exist naturally) but mercury also occurs in the rock cinnabar, which has been used for pigments since ancient times. Mercury is also found in livingstonite and corderoite ores.