Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Red mercury

Red mercury once again. My word, it's nice to see this stuff again:

Saudi police are investigating the origins of a hoax that had hundreds of people believing that old sewing machines may bring fortune because they contained an elusive, and probably mythical, substance known as red mercury.

Well, there's nothing mythical about red mercury, but you ain't gonna find it in a sewing machine. A nuclear reactor, perhaps, but not in a Singer.

The English-language Saudi Gazette newspaper said some buyers were willing to pay up to 200,000 riyals ($50,000) for an old Singer sewing machine proven to contain red mercury.

Mobile phones are supposedly employed as instruments to prove the existence of the phony substance. Popular belief in the Middle East has it that it can help uncover hidden gold treasures, though there are other theories which say it can be used to create a nuclear bomb.

Nope, sorry, this is a nonsense. I'm one of the few people in the world who can tell you what red mercury is (a by product of experiments) and what red mercury can be used for (nothing).

If somebody offers to buy the sewing machine? Sell it dear, just sell it.


Anonymous said...

Alright then, tell us (or even just me).

So far I've heard the following hypotheses:

1) It is a code phrase for a secret component or material.

2) It is a super-powerful high explosive

3) It is a very intense neutron emitter

4) It's a scam

So, come on, tell us what the stuff actually is.

Tim Worstall said...

OK. Here´s the real skinny. From someone who has worked in the Russian metals game for 15 years. From someone who has had nuclear material licences.

There is indeed something called "red mercury" .....and I don´t just mean red mercuric oxide. It´s a slang name for an amalgam which can be made inside a research reactor. I think (and it´s a long time ago that I was told) that it´s mercury and lutetium.

Quite why you want it I´m not sure. Probably something to do with Lu´s interesting reactions to magnetism.

Anyway, you can make this stuff and do fun experiements (this is pretty much the best ranslation of what I was told).

However, it decays or separates after about 30 minutes. So not terribly useful stuff.

All the rest of it, the people offering it for sale, these sewing machines and so on is simply a scam.

It isn´t a code word for anything (other than the slang name). It´s not an explosive, it´s not a neutron emitter, it´s scam.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, now this is starting to make some sense now. Lutetium is very hard to separate from the source ores, so you'd want to use it in very low levels as a doping material or as a catalyst.

Now, one way of depositing a very fine layer of a metal onto another surface is by dissolving the metal in mercury then painting this onto the surface to be coated; the Victorian process of fire-gilding to deposit gold onto iron being the most common example of this.

So, "Red Mercury" might just have been a quick and dirty method of depositing a fine layer of lutetium onto another surface for whatever eventual purpose; the red mercury being as you say merely a stage in an experimental process. This sort of quick'n'dirty processing is actually quite common in experimental science; you don't want to take the time to refine the deposition process to absolute perfection but merely to get a vaguely useful process that lets you test the thin layer deposit for whatever special property you were looking for.