Mercury occurs uncombined in nature to a limited extent. The metal is obtained commercially from cinnabar, a mercuric sulfide ore; it is easily separated by roasting the ore in air. The metal is usually purified by repeated vacuum distillation.
Mercury metal has many uses. Because of its high density, it is used in barometers and manometers. Because it has a high rate of thermal expansion that is fairly constant over a wide temperature range, it is used extensively in thermometers. Mercury is important as a liquid contact material for electric switches. It is used in mercury-vapor lamps, which emit light rich in ultraviolet radiation; various kinds of such lamps are used for street lighting, as sun lamps, and in "black lights" (see lighting). Mercury is used as an electrode in the production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. It is also used in certain electric batteries. With some other metals mercury forms a special type of alloy called an amalgam; a special amalgam (mostly mercury, silver, and tin) is used in dentistry for filling teeth.
Mercury compounds have many uses. Calomel (mercurous chloride, Hg2Cl2) is used as a standard in electrochemical measurements and in medicine as a purgative. Mercuric chloride (corrosive sublimate, HgCl2) is used as an insecticide, in rat poison, and as a disinfectant. Mercuric oxide is used in skin ointments. Mercuric sulfate is used as a catalyst in organic chemistry. Vermilion, a red pigment, is mercuric sulfide; another crystalline form of the sulfide (also used as a pigment) is black. Mercury fulminate, Hg(CNO)2, is used as a detonator. Mercury forms many organic compounds. Mercurochrome (in 2% aqueous solution) is used in medicine as a topical antiseptic. Mercury compounds were formerly used in the treatment of syphilis.
See also mercury poisoning.