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History Of Mercury Use in Products and Processes
Mercury Science and Policy at MIT
Mercury Science and Policy at MIT
History Of Mercury Use in Products and Processes
4 RepliesBy Ellen Czaika and Bethanie Edwards
As with most elements, there is a fixed amount of mercury on the planet. This mercury cycles through the deep earth, the atmosphere, the terrestrial reservoir, and various water bodies on timescales that vary from less than a year to tens of thousands of years. Toxicity aside, mercury has many chemical properties that make it useful to humans. Thus, there is evidence that mercury has been utilized throughout antiquity. A human skeleton dating from 5000BCE was found covered in vermillion, also known as cinnabar (HgS). Another historic example of mercury use was found in a 15th century BCE Egyptian tomb ceremonial cup.
Humans have been mining mercury ore from the deep earth (the “lithosphere”) since at least the Roman times. The Romans operated a mercury mine in Spain with prisoner and slave labor. They used mercury as a pigment in their paint; mercury-containing paint has been found in Roman homes buried by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. The use of mercury in paint has continued into the modern area, although in recent history, mercury was added as a fungicide rather than for its chromatic properties. It wasn’t until 1991 that the use of mercury in paint was phased out in the US.
Aristotle is credited with the oldest known written record of mercury (in an academic text dating back to sometime during the 4th century BCE), in which he referred to it as “fluid silver” and “quicksilver.” This academic text conveyed what alchemists of his day believed: that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.” At that time, it was used in ceremonies and to treat skin disorders. In India and China, it was used as an aphrodisiac and for medical therapy circa 500 BCE. Chinese woman are reported to have consumed mercury as a contraceptive 4,000 years ago. Cinnabar is still used as a sedative in traditional Chinese medicine.
By 1000 CE, mercury was used to extract gold by amalgamation. The mercury surrounds the gold, forming shiny pellets that workers then burn. The mercury evaporates, leaving the purified gold. This process is still practiced by artisanal small-scale gold mining operations today, exposing over 10 million of workers to the toxic element and releasing between 650-1000 tonnes of mercury per year into the environment.
Mercury was used in scientific research largely as a result of Torricelli’s 1643 invention of the barometer and Fahrenheit’s 1720 invention of the mercury thermometer. While thermometers in the health care sector are no longer made with mercury, China still produces several measurement devices, such as blood-pressure meters, that contain mercury.
During the Industrial Revolution, various inventions increased the demand for mercury. In 1799, mercury fulminate was first used as a detonator for explosives. In 1835, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was first produced, the original synthesis of which relied on mercury as a catalyst. In 1891, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp contained mercury (to this day compact fluorescent light bulbs have mercury added to them.) In 1894, H.Y. Castner discovered that mercury could be used in the chlor-alkali process to produce chlorine and caustic soda. And during WWII, the Ruben-Mallory battery (mercury dry-cell battery) was invented and widely used.
By the early 1900s, the main uses of mercury were in making scientific equipment, recovering gold and silver, manufacturing fulminate and vermilion, and felt-making. Of note, individuals who made felt hats displayed signs of dementia as a result of mercury poisoning. These “Mad Hatters” were referred to by Lewis Carroll in his book .
By the 1960s, the production of electrical apparati, caustic soda, and chlorine accounted for over 50% of mercury uses. Caustic soda is largely associated with the paper industry; it is used to achieve whiter paper. With the exception of manufactures in China, chlor-alkali production has now shifted to a non-mercury method. However, the chlor-alkali industry still accounts for 1% of total mercury emissions to the atmosphere and potentially a much larger contribution to water and land releases.
Before 1850, the world’s supply of usable mercury was extracted from three mines located in Almaden, Spain (dating back to the Romans times); Idria, Slovenia; and Santa Barbara, Peru (which the Spanish controlled during colonial times). Between 1850 and the 1960’s, the Santa Barbara mine ceased production and mercury mining began in two other regions: in Monte Amiata, Italy, and throughout California in the United States. The latter coincided with the Gold Rush. Since 1960, other mines have opened in the Soviet block countries, China, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Mexico, and the US state of Nevada. Despite the opening of new mines in recent decades, a report from the EU predicts that recycling of mercury from products and by-products could help meet the mercury demand and further reduce direct mining of mercury.
The historical use of mercury has set the stage for many of the modern products and processes that utilize mercury. It is estimated that, over the last 4000 years, historical and continued use of mercury have released 350,000 tonnes of mercury from the depths of the earth into air, surface land, and water, where it’s toxicity becomes problematic for human health and Earth’s sensitive biosphere.
Exploring the ancient chemistry of mercury
This paper explores the chemistry of mercury as described in ancient alchemical literature. Alchemy’s focus on the knowledge and manipulation of na...
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Exploring the ancient chemistry of mercury
Marianna Marchini https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9746-2062, Massimo Gandolfi, Lucia Maini https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0703-2617 email@example.com, +1 , Lucia Raggetti, and Matteo Martelli firstname.lastname@example.org -1Authors Info & Affiliations
Edited by Alexandra Navrotsky, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ; received December 23, 2021; accepted March 23, 2022
June 7, 2022
119 (24) e2123171119
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Our research approach in the field of History of Science combines textual investigations with experimental replications of ancient alchemical procedures. Alchemy is often described as a pseudoscience, whereas it would be better described as a protoscience; indeed, we have reported procedures that never found their way into modern laboratories along with the formalization and translation of these procedures into the modern language of chemistry. We strongly believe that it is important to let the chemistry community know its history, which has deep roots in the past.
This paper explores the chemistry of mercury as described in ancient alchemical literature. Alchemy’s focus on the knowledge and manipulation of natural substances is not so different from modern chemistry’s purposes. The great divide between the two is marked by the way of conceptualizing and recording their practices. Our interdisciplinary research group, composed of chemists and historians of science, has set off to explore the cold and hot extraction of mercury from cinnabar. The ancient written records have been perused in order to devise laboratory experiments that could shed light on the material reality behind the alchemical narratives and interpret textual details in a unique perspective. In this way, it became possible to translate the technical lore of ancient alchemy into the modern language of chemistry. Thanks to the replication of alchemical practices, chemistry can regain its centuries-long history that has fallen into oblivion.
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Alchemy is a difficult word. It encapsulates the long history of this discipline, which features Greek sources first translated into Arabic and then from Arabic into Latin. Alchemy stems from the Latin , a loanword that combines the Arabic article with , which, in turn, can be traced back to the Greek (or ). This term refers either to the action of smelting or to the ancient name of Egypt, the cradle of this practice. Interestingly, the same word —and the related or —are at the basis of terms like chemistry and chemical (1). Chemistry, indeed, is the modern discipline most closely akin to alchemy, and a better understanding of the latter is critical to better reconstruct the history of chemistry (2). If alchemy often evokes almost mythical procedures, like the making of the philosophers’ stone that can transform base metals into gold, the earliest alchemical texts produced in the Graeco-Roman Egypt (first to fourth century CE) deal with a vast variety of technical and, to some extent, experimental procedures. They mainly include recipes, which represent an invaluable source for understanding how our ancestors described, conceptualized, and manipulated natural substances. Such recipes were often dismissed as nonsense or even interpreted as mere allegories for spiritual practices of self-purification. On the contrary, we detect in these recipes the actual description of chemical practices carried out in ancient workshops.
Our research adopts an interdisciplinary outlook through collaboration between chemists and historians of science to investigate one of the most intriguing elements in the history of alchemy, that is, mercury. A corpus of ancient sources was scoured in search of information on the extraction of mercury from the mineral cinnabar. A careful textual analysis is essential to interpret this rich variety of sources and translate ancient recipes into modern renderings.
In this study, we propose a suite of experiments that apply a circular hermeneutical approach to ancient recipes. We read the sources, propose chemical interpretations, test these hypotheses in the laboratory, and return to the sources (3). We followed the instructions of ancient recipes and used synthetic reagents, which enabled us to characterize the products and detect the roles played by the different ingredients. Then, we reproduced the recipes using mineral ores to confirm the possibility of the reaction with substances closer to those that were used by the ancients. In terms of equipment, we did not opt for historical reconstructions. Without affecting the results of the tested reactions, we adapted modern labware, thus significantly reducing the experiments’ durations and conforming to modern safety protocols.
Western alchemy emerged in Graeco-Roman Egypt, where, as early as the first centuries CE, a varied repertoire of alchemical texts was in circulation. Two Greek recipe books written on papyrus in the third century CE have come down to us (the so-called Leiden and Stockholm papyri). Other texts have survived in later copies transmitted by Byzantine manuscripts or, in some cases, translated into Syriac and Arabic. Some texts were ascribed to authoritative figures: Maria the Jewess (the legendary designer of the heating method known as bain-marie), Chymes (the eponymous hero of alchemy that was called at that time), and the philosopher Democritus (who was credited with four alchemical treatises, a pseudonymous work now referred to as Pseudo-Democritus’ books). Other key sources were produced by more historical figures, such as the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (third to fourth century CE). All these texts feature a close interest in mercury, whose mechanochemical properties captured the attention of early practitioners. After all, they conceptualized mercury as a common constituent of all metals. Zosimus reports that the Egyptian alchemist Pebichius (first to second century CE) stopped at the market and shouted, “All the (metallic) bodies are mercury” (4).
How mercury is made
Mercury is one of the basic chemical elements. It is a heavy, silvery metal that is liquid at normal temperatures. Mercury readily forms alloys with other metals, and this makes it useful in processing gold and silver. Much of the impetus to develop mercury ore deposits in the United States came after the discovery of gold and silver in California and other western states in the 1800s. Unfortunately, mercury is also a highly toxic material, and as a result, its use has severely declined over the past 20 years. Its principal applications are in the production of chlorine and caustic soda, and as a component of many electrical devices, including fluorescent and mercury-vapor lamps.
Mercury has been found in Egyptian tombs dating to about 1500 B.C. , and it was probably used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes even earlier. In about 350 B.C. , the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle described how cinnabar ore was heated to extract mercury for religious ceremonies. The Romans used mercury for a variety of purposes and gave it the name hydrargyrum, meaning liquid silver, from which the chemical symbol for mercury, Hg, is derived.
Demand for mercury greatly increased in 1557 with the development of a process that used mercury to extract silver from its ore. The mercury barometer was invented by Torricelli in 1643, followed by the invention of the mercury thermometer by Fahrenheit in 1714. The first use of a mercury alloy, or amalgam, as a tooth filling in dentistry was in 1828, although concerns over the toxic nature of mercury prevented the widespread use of this new technique. It wasn't until 1895 that experimental work by G.V. Black showed that amalgam fillings were safe, although 100 years later scientists were still debating that point.
Mercury found its way into many products and industrial applications after 1900. It was commonly used in batteries, paints, explosives, light bulbs, light switches, pharmaceuticals, fungicides, and pesticides. Mercury was also used as part of the processes to produce paper, felt, glass, and many plastics.
In the 1980s, increasing understanding and awareness of the harmful health and environmental effects of mercury started to greatly outweigh its benefits, and usage began to drop sharply. By 1992, its use in batteries had dropped to less than 5% of its level in 1988, and overall use in electrical devices and light bulbs had dropped 50% in the same period. The use of mercury in paints, fungicides, and pesticides has been banned in the United States, and its use in the paper, felt, and glass-manufacturing processes has been voluntarily discontinued.
Worldwide, production of mercury is limited to only a few countries with relaxed environmental laws. Mercury mining has ceased altogether in Spain, which until 1989 was the world's largest producer. In the United States, mercury mining has also stopped, although small quantities of mercury are recovered as part of the gold refining process to avoid environmental contamination. China, Russia (formerly the USSR), Mexico, and Algeria were the largest producers of mercury in 1992.
Mercury is rarely found by itself in nature. Most mercury is chemically bound to other materials in the form of ores. The most common ore is red mercury sulfide (HgS), also known as cinnabar. Other mercury ores include corderoite (Hg 3 S 2 Cl 2 ), livingstonite (HgSb 4 S 8 ), montroydite (HgO), and calomel (HgCl). There are several others. Mercury ores are formed underground when warm mineral solutions rise towards the earth's surface under the influence of volcanic action. They are usually found in faulted and fractured rocks at relatively shallow depths of 3-3000 ft (1-1000 m).
Other sources of mercury include the dumps and tailing piles of earlier, less-efficient mining and processing operations.The Manufacturing
The process for extracting mercury from its ores has not changed much since Aristotle first described it over 2,300 years ago. Cinnabar ore is crushed and heated to release the mercury as a vapor. The mercury vapor is then cooled, condensed, and collected. Almost 95% of the mercury content of cinnabar ore can be recovered using this process.
Here is a typical sequence of operations used for the modern extraction and refining of mercury.
Cinnabar ore occurs in concentrated deposits located at or near the surface. About 90% of these deposits are deep enough to require underground mining with tunnels. The remaining 10% can be excavated from open pits.
1 Cinnabar is dislodged from the surrounding rocks by drilling and blasting with explosives or by the use of power equipment. The ore is brought out of the mine on conveyor belts or in trucks or trains.
Because cinnabar ore is relatively concentrated, it can be processed directly without any intermediate steps to remove waste material.
2 The ore is first crushed in one or more cone crushers. A cone crusher consists of an interior grinding cone that rotates on an eccentric vertical axis inside a fixed outer cone. As the ore is fed into the top of the crusher, it is squeezed between the two cones and broken into smaller pieces.
3 The crushed ore is then ground even smaller by a series of mills. Each mill consists of a large cylindrical container laying on its side and rotating on its horizontal axis. The mill may be filled with short lengths of steel rods or with steel balls to provide the grinding action.