Slime videos emerging from TikTok sent some people into an understandable panic on Twitter recently as it looked as though they were casually tossing around mercury. While the liquid metal closely resembles mercury, it’s actually another very cool material called gallium.
Gallium, or Ga on the Period Table, is a soft, silvery-white metal that’s similar to aluminum. You’ll find a lot of photos of people holding its puddled form in the palm of their hands on the internet, and this is because, despite its mercury-like appearance, it’s non-toxic.
When it comes to mercury, handling it isn’t really the issue. While skin can absorb mercury, which can cause poisoning in humans, it absorbs very slowly. However, mercury is not something you want to be around because you can breathe in its vapor, a hazard that's especially dangerous for children and pregnant people.
Even if you were to wear a mask, playing with mercury could be catastrophic for sentimental items such as rings. Gold dissolves in mercury, so if the latter should come into contact with, say, a wedding ring, you can kiss that thing goodbye.
In short, don’t be messing around with mercury. And why would you want to when gallium exists?
In the wild, gallium exists within compounds in trace amounts. It’s extracted into its pure form through smelting and can be harvested commercially as a by-product of aluminum and zinc production.
In the workplace, gallium is employed in electronic circuits, semiconductors, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and microwaves. It also lends a helping hand to solar panels and has traveled to Mars by hitching a ride on NASA’s Mars Exploration Program’s rovers.
As for gallium’s recreational uses, as metals go it’s a very fun one to play with. At room temperature gallium is so soft you can cut through it with a knife. Pick it up and warm it with your hand and it will turn to liquid, much like that seen satisfyingly gooing into balls of slime on TikTok.
So, anyone fearing that people are happily huffing in mercury on TikTok can probably breathe a sigh of relief as we have the chemical element gallium to thank for the satisfying videos. That said, mercury ending up on the social media platform doesn’t feel like that great a leap when you consider how many people have taken to TikTok happily handling blue-ringed octopuses.