Red Mercury

George Sassoon writes: According to a British newspaper today, four men are being questioned by 'anti-terrorism police' on suspicion of trying to buy the 'radioactive material known as red mercury' to make a 'dirty bomb'. As far as I know, 'red mercury' is simply mercuric oxide and is not radioactive. Is this a reference to another type of mercury compound, or are these people falling for a confidence trick?  Does any WAISer know the truth about this 'radioactive red mercury'?

George Sassoon reports on the 'red mercury', the subject of his previous message: I did a Google search using "red mercury" radioactive as the search string and all I got was denials that the stuff exists and a few snippets.  A few sites said that its formula was Hg2Sb2O7 of molecular weight 756.61 (i have not checked this) and that the Russians made it then put it into a reactor to make it highly radioactive.  I will check the neutron capture cross-sections of Hg and Sb and see what I get.  The valencies are not right in the above chemical formula.

The general opinion is that it is an elaborate trick by Russian con-men to extract dollars from terrorists.  Reputable US scientists from Los Alamos and similar dismiss it.  Let's hope that the truth about the stuff emerges from the present police investigation, though with his love of scare tactics I doubt if our dear Mr Blair will allow this!

George Sassoon, who brought up the question of 'red mercury' writes: Is it a coincidence that the 'terrorists' were arrested at a time just before a BBC TV program entitled 'Dirty War', which dealt with the consequences of just such a bomb as they were planning in central London?  I think not.  It is all part of Blair's plan to reduce the population of Britain to a state of terror and give him an excuse to impose totalitarian rule! The more I find out about this 'red mercury', the more I think that it exists only in the minds of Russian con-men and their dupes, who should have been allowed to waste their money.  The stuff could then have been seized and a public announcement made that it is harmless, but that is not Blair's way.

Randy Black quotes Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.: The science newsgroups have been a-buzz with tales of a 2-kiloton yield Russian red mercury fusion device, theoretically in the possession of terrorists. This, of course, begs the question: What Is Red Mercury? The answer to this question depends largely on who you ask. Is red mercury real? Absolutely, but definitions vary. If you had asked me before I did a bit of Internet research, I would have given you the standard cinnabar/vermillion answer. However, the Russian tritium fusion bomb is more interesting...

1. Cinnabar/Vermillion Cinnabar is naturally-occurring mercuric sulfide (HgS), while vermillion is the name given to the red pigment derived from either natural or manufactured cinnabar.

2. Mercury (II) Iodide: The alpha crystalline form of mercury (II) iodide is called 'red mercury', which changes to the yellow beta form at 127°C.

3. Any Red-Colored Mercury Compound Originating in Russia: as in the cold war definition of 'Red'. I doubt anyone is using 'red mercury' in this manner, but it's a possible interpretation.

4.A Ballotechnic Mercury Compound- Presumably red in color. Ballotechnics are substances which react very energetically in response to high-pressure shock compression. Google's Sci.Chem group has had a lively ongoing discussion about the possibility of a an explosive form of mercury antimony oxide. According to some reports, red mercury is a cherry red semi-liquid which is produced by irradiating elemental mercury with mercury antimony oxide in a Russian nuclear reactor. Some people think that red mercury is so explosive that it can be used to trigger a fusion reaction in tritium or deuterium-tritium mixture. Pure fusion devices don't require fissionable material, so it's easier to get the materials needed to make one and easier to transport said materials from one place to another. Other reports refer to a documentary in which is was possible to read a report on Hg2Sb207, in which the compound had a density of 20.20 Kg/dm3 (!). Personally, I find it plausible that mercury antimony oxide, as a low density (nonradioactive?) powder, may be of interest as a ballotechnic material. The high-density material seems unlikely. It would also seem unreasonably dangerous (to the maker) to use a ballotechnic material in a fusion device. One intriguing source mentions a liquid explosive, HgSbO, made by Du Pont laboratories and listed in the international chemical register as number 20720-76-7. Anyone care to look it up?

5. A Military Code Name for a New Nuclear Material As I understand it, this definition originates from the extraordinarily high prices commanded and paid for a substance called 'red mercury', which was manufactured in Russia. The price ($200-300K per kilogram) and trade restrictions were consistent with a nuclear material as opposed to cinnabar.Source:

RH: I'm not sure where this leaves us, but I hope it is enough to convince Georhe that there is more to 'red mercury' than meets his eye. Tony Blair is an ex-choir boy who is on the side of the angels. Indeed, there is something angelic about him.

Regarding the red menace of red mercury Randy Black said: Other reports refer to a documentary in which is was possible to read a report on Hg2Sb207, in which the compound had a density of 20.20 Kg/dm3 (!).  George Sassoon says: I read Randy Black's posting on this with great interest.  I too saw the reference to this report, but thought the density figure far too high so discounted it.  The densest material known is osmium metal with a figure of 22.57.  So it is difficult to see how an oxide of mercury (metal density 13.546) and antimony (6.691) can be so dense.  As I said earlier, reports from known authoritative sources are negative.  Let us hope that they are right! 

RH: Then we have the old problem of heavy water used in atomic weapons.  Can someone tell us why it is not in the news any more?  It is hard to see how the public can have an informed opinion on these subjects.

Steve Torok writes: In 1982 while at a conference in France, we visited the French liquid cooled breeder reactor site that had been attacked by hand-held rockets from across the river. Subsequently the reactor was completed and it may be still running, producing more enriched material then it uses while producing also some electricity. My understanding was that the retrieval of fissionable material was through processing the cooling liquid, mercury, and retrieving "red mercury " for re-processing for fissionable material to be re-used in this or other reactors. My memory is sluggish on this, however this would explain the high price of the material on illicit markets...Any nuclear physicists more up-to-date on this?

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: E-mail to Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: September 28, 2004