Most appliances, thermostats, and other gizmos that turn on and off automatically use a switch containing mercury. But such technology is fast becoming a pariah: Mercury is toxic when released into the environment, so some states, including California, Florida, and Minnesota, have banned new products that contain it, while New Jersey prohibits the disposal of such products.
In timely fashion, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University chemistry professors James Rancourt and Larry T. Taylor have developed an environmentally safe replacement switch using a new liquid-gallium-based alloy they invented. The device can even be produced by the same facilities that now manufacture mercury switches. Since the new material is 20 times as conductive as mercury, Rancourt expects to be able to produce switches that perform as well as mercury for about the same price. The Virginia Center for Innovative Technology has licensed the technology to NonMerc, a new company formed to exploit it.