Red Mercury


This is a mineral that is widely mined on many worlds and asteroids. It actually does not contain the element mercury, the name is a reference to a rare ballotechnic substance found on old Earth. Red mercury is essential for high technology, particularly important in fusion processes and advanced materials preparation and plasma energy weapons. Red mercury exports are often a major source of income for struggling colonies.

Red Mercury Production

Red mercury tends to be found in areas of rock that have been subject to conditions of extreme pressure and temperature. It is most often found in or near volcanic subduction or extrusion zones on tectonically active planets. It can also be found less reliably in large asteroid impact craters. Although red mercury is quite widely distributed throughout the universe in trace amounts, large and economically mine-able concentrations are harder to come by, and tend to be in regions of rocky inner planets that have been volcanically active for a long time. Mining costs are also lowest (by an order of magnitude) on terran-type worlds with oxygen atmospheres, and in the right circumstances can produce the highest returns on investment of any extractive industry. Red Mercury development thus tends to be a key precursor for colony development.

However, while the physics and chemistry of the red mercury formation process is fairly well understood, the varied nature of the sites where large agglomerations are found tends to make characterising what are economic deposits and what are not a challenging task. Furthermore, the low concentrations in which red mercury is typically found means that large amounts of rock must be moved and processed to extract any significant quantities of red mercury.
Generally, red mercury bearing rock is crushed and dissolved in a caustic mixture, allowing for easier separation of components. This tends to happen close to a mine site to avoid having to transport large quantities of relatively worthless rock. If the world is earthlike, sulphuric acid for the processing can also be fairly easily and cheaply generated locally from recovering sulphur from any on-planet hydrocarbon extraction, or if need be from biomass.

This primary processing produces a red mercury concentrate slurry, containing perhaps a few percent of the substance, which can then be taken to a more central refining site which serves several red mercury mines. Large scale extraction will tend to use pipelines for the slurry, smaller scale mines will transport the concentrate by road or rail. After refining, the finished, refined red mercury is then in a relatively compact form suitable for
off-world transport.

The whole on-planet production chain, from mine to processing plant to refinery,
tends to require an investment of tens of millions of credits. Given the poorly characterised state of many on-planet red mercury deposits, this means that colony developers are effectively indulging in a very high stakes gamble.
Roughly 50% of new red mercury mines fail for a variety of reasons, and because of the sunk costs involved this will tend to bankrupt a colony development. While on average red mercury mines nevertheless tend to be extremely profitable investments, the uncertain nature of which will succeed and which will fail means that only companies with very deep pockets can afford to risk a run of several failures in the hope of recouping their losses later. This means that colony development is, in practice, in the hands of a dozen or so large multinational companies that can afford to bankroll such developments.