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How to make and use a simple retort for separating gold-mercury[edit]


Mercury is used in amalgamation to recover gold in its native or 'free' form. While mercury simplifies the process greatly, it must be remem bered that it is a very dangerous substance, especially when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Mercury is an 'accum ulative' poison, meaning that repeated exposure, even of very small amounts, can build up in the body, leading eventually to mercury poisoning. Mercury released into the atmosphere is also dangerous because it combines easily with other substances (such as hydrocarbons) to form com pounds which can easily be taken up by other organisms, such as fish and shellfish. A build-up of m ercury in these organisms can make them dangerous to eat. Signs of serious mercury poisoning include stomach pains, vomiting, headache s, shaking, collapse, diarrhoea and, occasionally, cardiac weakness. Indications of low-Ievel poisoning include nervousness, depression, vague fea rs, sleeping difficulties, reduced vision and poor co-ordination of the limbs.

The need for a closed retort[edit]

Because of these dangers, it is very important to handle mercury extremely carefully. When working with gold am algam, the mercury should be distilled in a closed retort. This not only ensures the health of those involved and protects the environment, but the mercury can also be recovered for future use. Figure 1: A simple retort Discharge end A glass of water Oxy-acetylene torch Charcoal fire Distilling chamber A mercury retort

Parts required[edit]

The retort's pipe and fittings, except for the wooden stopper (2e) should be made from ordinary galvanised iron. Piping made from copper or other m etals should not be used as these com bine readily with mercury. 1. One 20-inch length of 1/4-inch-diameter galvanised iron pipe {2a), , with screw thread at one end. If 1/4-inch pipe is not available, then use 1f2-inch pipe, but note that the smaller the pipe diameter the better. 2. One 1/2-inch to1/4-inch galvanised iron reducing bush {2b). 3. One 1f2-to-11/2-inch galvanised iron reducer {2c). 4. One 11/2-inch galvanised iron plug {2d). 5. A wooden stopper to fit the 1/4-inch pipe {or 1/2-inch) at the discharge end {2e).

Fabricating the retort[edit]

Preparation 1 .Bend the pipe 4 inches from the threaded end into a smooth curve, with an angle of 60-700. Use a pipe bending ma chine, if available. Otherwise, clamp pipe to a larger diameter pipe (4 to 6-inch) and then manually bend the pipe around it (Figure 3). 2. Heat the pipe and fittings until red hot, before assembly, to burn off the zinc coating (zinc reacts with mercury). Allow the retort to cool, then wash it. Assembly (Figure 2) 1. Connect the 1/2-inch to 1/4-inch reducing bush to the pipe (2b to 2a) by screwing tightly.


The reducing bush is not required if a 1/2-inch diameter pipe is used. Figure 1: Pipe bending using a clamp or vice Figure 2: Part required for the retort 2d 2c 2b 2a 2e Threaded end of inch pipe 4 6 inch dia. pipe Clamp or vice A mercury retort Figure 4: Components of the assembled m ercury retort

Figure 5: Separate components[edit]

of the mercury retort[edit]

2. Connect the 1;'2-inch-to-1 V2-inch (2c to 2b) red ucer to the reducing bush by screwing tightly. 3. Connect the 11;'2-inch plug to the reducer (2d to 2c). The retort is now ready for use. Using the Retort The purpose of the retort is to separate the gold from the mercury components of the gold amalgam. By applying heat to the amalgam (Figure 1 ), the merc ury is burnt off as a gas, which passes along the pipe to re-condense as a liquid. The gold remains in the distilling chamber of the retort, while the mercury is collected at the discharge end in liquid form. 1. Wrap the amalgam into small balls with a piece of paper (the foil from a cigarette packet is ideal). This will help prevent the gold from sticking to the distilling chamber under heat. Note: Wear rubber gloves whenever you are handling mercury to avoid contact with the skin. 2. Place the wrapped amalgam in the plug (2d) and screw tightly. 3. Seal all the joints with wet clay or mud . This will prevent mercury gases escaping into the atmosphere during the heating process. 4. Prepare the source of heat, normally charcoal (an oxy-acetylene torch can also be used). A mercury retort 5. Secure the retort on a stand that places the distilling chamber directl y over the source of heat. At the discharge end, place a glass of water, with the end of the pipe submerged (Figure 1). 6. Use bello ws to increase heat. Continue applying the bellows until the distilling chamber is red hot or bubbles stop coming out of the discharge end. This part of the process norma lly takes about 5 minutes. 7. Remove source of heat and allow the retort to cool down using a wet cloth or water, but taking care to keep the discharge end of the pipe submerged in water. 8. Lift the retort vertically with the discharge end still submerged in the water (Figure 6). Tap the pipe with a stick to dislodge a ny merc ury still in the pipe. 9. Remove the retort from the water and cover the discharge end imm ediately with the wooden stopper. 10. Cool the distilling chamber further by dipping it in cold water. 11. Unscrew the plug and remove the gold. Screw the plug back immediately and remember to keep the retort f itted tightly together at all times after use, as some of the m ercury will remain trapped. 12. Transfer the recovered mercury to a proper container. To prevent evaporation of mercu ry while being stored, put a layer of water over the mercury. 13. Store the container and the retort safely, out of sunlight, away from heat and out of reach of children.

First aid treatment for mercury poisoning[edit]

1. Inhalation Remove the victim to a cool, well ventilated area; lay him on his back; loosen collar and belt; speak reassuringly; if victim is coughing badly, mak e him inhale (brea the) through a clean cloth soaked with a little ethyl alcohol or ether. 2. Swallowing Make the victim r inse his mouth with cold water; take him to a cool, well ventilated area; loosen collar and belt; give plenty of water to drink; induce vomiting; if possible, feed with milk and raw egg, raw egg alone or table oil. 3. Skin contact Rem ove clothing on affected area, wash affected area with running water; rinse and dry carefully. 4. Eye contact Wash affected eye imm ediately under running water with eyelids held wide apart and the victim's eyes moving in every direction; continue washing to be sure no particles of m ercury rem ain in the eye; prevent victim from rubbing eyes. Notes: In all cases of mercury poisoning, refer victim to a doctor after giving First Aid. Never try to make an unconscious person take a drink. Never use any oily substance or ointment without medical advice. Note: Do not worry if, the first time you use the retort, only a small part of the expected amount of mercury is recovered. Most of the merc ury is normally trapped in the retort, and will be recovered in second and subsequent uses. Figure 6: Tap the pipe to remove the mercury