Relativity behind mercury’s liquidity
Why is mercury a liquid at room temperature? If you ask that question in a school classroom you will probably be told that relativity affects the orbitals of heavy metals, contracting them and changing how they bond. However, the first evidence that this explanation is correct has only just been published.
An international team led by Peter Schwerdtfegerof Massey University Auckland in New Zealand used quantum mechanics to make calculations of the heat capacity of the metal either including or excluding relativistic effects. They showed that if they ignored relativity when making their calculations, the predicted melting point of mercury was 82°C. But if they included relativistic effects their answer closely matched the experimental value of -39°C.
Relativity states that objects get heavier the faster they move. In atoms, the velocity of the innermost electrons is related to the nuclear charge. The larger the nucleus gets the greater the electrostatic attraction and the faster the electrons have to move to avoid falling into it. So, as you go down the periodic table these 1s electrons get faster and faster, and therefore heavier, causing the radius of the atom to shrink. This stabilises some orbitals, which also have a relativistic nature of their own, while destabilising others. This interplay means that for heavy elements like mercury and gold, the outer electrons are stabilised. In mercury’s case, instead of forming bonds between neighbouring mercury atoms, the electrons stay associated with their own nuclei, and weaker interatomic forces such as van der Waals bonds hold the atoms together…>>>more