Mercury is a heavy, silvery-white liquid metal. Compared to other metals, it is a poor conductor of heat, but a fair conductor of electricity.
It has a freezing point of −38.83 °C and a boiling point of 356.73 °C, both the lowest of any stable metal, although preliminary experiments on copernicium and flerovium have indicated that they have even lower boiling points (copernicium being the element below mercury in the periodic table, following the trend of decreasing boiling points down group 12). Upon freezing, the volume of mercury decreases by 3.59% and its density changes from 13.69 g/cm3 when liquid to 14.184 g/cm3 when solid. The coefficient of volume expansion is 181.59 × 10−6 at 0 °C, 181.71 × 10−6 at 20 °C and 182.50 × 10−6 at 100 °C (per °C). Solid mercury is malleable and ductile and can be cut with a knife.
A complete explanation of mercury's extreme volatility delves deep into the realm of quantum physics, but it can be summarized as follows: mercury has a unique electron configuration where electrons fill up all the available 1s, 2s, 2p, 3s, 3p, 3d, 4s, 4p, 4d, 4f, 5s, 5p, 5d, and 6s subshells. Because this configuration strongly resists removal of an electron, mercury behaves similarly to noble gases, which form weak bonds and hence melt at low temperatures.
The stability of the 6s shell is due to the presence of a filled 4f shell. An f shell poorly screens the nuclear charge that increases the attractive Coulomb interaction of the 6s shell and the nucleus (see lanthanide contraction). The absence of a filled inner f shell is the reason for the somewhat higher melting temperature of cadmium and zinc, although both these metals still melt easily and, in addition, have unusually low boiling points.
Mercury does not react with most acids, such as dilute sulfuric acid, although oxidizing acids such as concentrated sulfuric acid and nitric acid or aqua regia dissolve it to give sulfate, nitrate, and chloride. Like silver, mercury reacts with atmospheric hydrogen sulfide. Mercury reacts with solid sulfur flakes, which are used in mercury spill kits to absorb mercury (spill kits also use activated carbon and powdered zinc).
Mercury-discharge spectral calibration lamp
Mercury dissolves many metals such as gold and silver to form amalgams. Iron is an exception, and iron flasks have traditionally been used to trade mercury. Several other first row transition metals with the exception of manganese, copper and zinc are also resistant in forming amalgams. Other elements that do not readily form amalgams with mercury include platinum. Sodium amalgam is a common reducing agent in organic synthesis, and is also used in high-pressure sodium lamps.
Mercury readily combines with aluminium to form a mercury-aluminium amalgam when the two pure metals come into contact. Since the amalgam destroys the aluminium oxide layer which protects metallic aluminium from oxidizing in-depth (as in iron rusting), even small amounts of mercury can seriously corrode aluminium. For this reason, mercury is not allowed aboard an aircraft under most circumstances because of the risk of it forming an amalgam with exposed aluminium parts in the aircraft.
Mercury embrittlement is the most common type of liquid metal embrittlement.
There are seven stable isotopes of mercury, with 202
Hg being the most abundant (29.86%). The longest-lived radioisotopes are 194
Hg with a half-life of 444 years, and 203
Hg with a half-life of 46.612 days. Most of the remaining radioisotopes have half-lives that are less than a day. 199
Hg and 201
Hg are the most often studied NMR-active nuclei, having spins of 1⁄2 and 3⁄2 respectively.