Is quicksilver mined?

May 17, 2017 | Author: | Posted in Science

Quicksilver is the popular name of mercury, a heavy silver-white element. It is unique among the metallic elements in that it remains liquid at ordinary temperatures. Mercury occurs in nature in a free state, both in lodes and placer deposits, but only in small quantities.

Commercial mercury is obtained chiefly from cinnabar ore, the sulphide of quicksilver, which occurs naturally as brilliant red crystals or red and brownish masses. The pure mercury is extracted by subjecting the ore to high temperatures and then condensing the vapor. Hence quicksilver is “mined.”

The largest and richest concentrated deposit of mercury ore is at Almaden in central Spain. It has been worked since the days of the ancient Romans. A Greek writer who lived about 300 B.C. said “liquid silver” was obtained in his day “by rubbing cinnabar ore with vinegar in a copper vessel.”

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, when mercury production in North America was greatly increased, Spain and Italy had a virtual monopoly on quicksilver. Deposits of mercury ore exist in California, Oregon, Texas and other states.

Mercury is used in thermometers, antifouling paint to protect ships from barnacles, electrical contacts, a process of mining gold by amalgamation, and in various medical and pharmaceutical compounds, while fulminate of mercury, a highly explosive compound, is used in an igniter or detonater for ammunition.

The element is handled, stored, shipped and sold in iron containers called flasks, which supplanted the sheepskin bags formerly used for that purpose. A standard flask of mercury contains seventy-six pounds of the liquid element. A man can carry a full flask of mercury on his shoulder, but the surge of the heavy liquid in a partly filled flask is so sudden and strong it will throw him down.

There is an old belief that quicksilver placed in a pool or pond of water will cause it to disappear or sink it. The weight of the liquid metal, according to the notion, will cause it to find a passage through the bottom to subterranean cavities and carry the water away in its wake. Such a thing, of course, would be possible only under very exceptional conditions.

Another odd belief is that a loaf of bread containing quicksilver will gravitate toward and locate the body of a drowned person in water. Although this method of locating drowned persons is occasionally reported as successful, it is probably only a myth.

 

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