1. Atom and its structure

Atomic bonds

Once the way atoms are put together is understood, the question of how they interact with each other can be addressed—in particular, how they form bonds to create molecules and macroscopic materials. There are three basic ways that the outer electrons of atoms can form bonds:

  1. Electrons can be transferred from one atom to another.
  2. Electrons can be shared between neighbouring atoms.
  3. Electrons can be shared with all atoms in a material.

The first way gives rise to what is called an ionic bond. Consider as an example an atom of sodium, which has one electron in its outermost orbit, coming near an atom of chlorine, which has seven. Because it takes eight electrons to fill the outermost shell of these atoms, the chlorine atom can be thought of as missing one electron. The sodium atom donates its single valence electron to fill the hole in the chlorine shell, forming a sodium chloride system at a lower total energy level.

ionic bond: sodium chloride, or table salt
ionic bond: sodium chloride, or table salt Ionic bonding in sodium chloride. An atom of sodium (Na) donates one of its electrons to an atom of chlorine (Cl) in a chemical reaction, and the resulting positive ion (Na+) and negative ion (Cl) form a stable ionic compound (sodium chloride; common table salt) based on this ionic bond.

An atom that has more or fewer electrons in orbit than protons in its nucleus is called an ion. Once the electron from its valence shell has been transferred, the sodium atom will be missing an electron; it therefore will have a positive charge and become a sodium ion. Simultaneously, the chlorine atom, having gained an extra electron, will take on a negative charge and become a chlorine ion. The electrical force between these two oppositely charged ions is attractive and locks them together. The resulting sodium chloride compound is a cubic crystal, commonly known as ordinary table salt.

The second bonding strategy listed above is described by quantum mechanics. When two atoms come near each other, they can share a pair of outermost electrons (think of the atoms as tossing the electrons back and forth between them) to form a covalent bond. Covalent bonds are particularly common in organic materials, where molecules often contain long chains of carbon atoms (which have four electrons in their valence shells).

Finally, in some materials each atom gives up an outer electron that then floats freely—in essence, the electron is shared by all of the atoms within the material. The electrons form a kind of sea in which the positive ions float like marbles in molasses. This is called the metallic bond and, as the name implies, it is what holds metals together.

There are also ways for atoms and molecules to bond without actually exchanging or sharing electrons. In many molecules the internal forces are such that the electrons tend to cluster at one end of the molecule, leaving the other end with a positive charge. Overall, the molecule has no net electric charge—it is just that the positive and negative charges are found at different places. For example, in water (H2O) the electrons tend to spend most of their time near the oxygen atom, leaving the region of the hydrogen atoms with a positive charge.

Molecules whose charges are arranged in this way are called polar molecules. An atom or ion approaching a polar molecule from its negative side, for example, will experience a stronger negative electric force than the more-distant positive electric force. This is why many substances dissolve in water: the polar water molecule can pull ions out of materials by exerting electric forces.

A special case of polar forces occurs in what is called the hydrogen bond. In many situations, when hydrogen forms a covalent bond with another atom, electrons move toward that atom, and the hydrogen acquires a slight positive charge. The hydrogen, in turn, attracts another atom, thereby forming a kind of bridge between the two. Many important molecules, including DNA, depend on hydrogen bonds for their structure.

polar covalent bond
polar covalent bond In polar covalent bonds, such as that between hydrogen and oxygen atoms, the electrons are not transferred from one atom to the other as they are in an ionic bond. Instead, some outer electrons merely spend more time in the vicinity of the other atom. The effect of this orbital distortion is to induce regional net charges that hold the atoms together, such as in water molecules.

Finally, there is a way for a weak bond to form between two electrically neutral atoms. Dutch physicist Johannes van der Waals first theorized a mechanism for such a bond in 1873, and it is now known as van der Waals forces. When two atoms approach each other, their electron clouds exert repulsive forces on each other, so that the atoms become polarized. In such situations, it is possible that the electrical attraction between the nucleus of one atom and the electrons of the other will overcome the repulsive forces between the electrons, and a weak bond will form.

One example of this force can be seen in ordinary graphite pencil lead. In this material, carbon atoms are held together in sheets by strong covalent bonds, but the sheets are held together only by van der Waals forces. When a pencil is drawn across paper, the van der Waals forces break, and sheets of carbon slough off. This is what creates the dark pencil streak.

1. Atom and its structure

Electron shells

In the quantum mechanical version of the Bohr atomic model, each of the allowed electron orbits is assigned a quantum number n that runs from 1 (for the orbit closest to the nucleus) to infinity (for orbits very far from the nucleus). All of the orbitals that have the same value of n make up a shell. Inside each shell there may be subshells corresponding to different rates of rotation and orientation of orbitals and the spin directions of the electrons. In general, the farther away from the nucleus a shell is, the more subshells it will have. See the table.

atomic orbitals
atomic orbitals Electrons fill in shell and subshell levels in a semiregular process, as indicated by the arrows above. After filling the first shell level (with just an s subshell), electrons move into the second-level s subshell and then into the p subshell before starting on another shell level. Because of its lower energy state, the 4s orbital fills before the 3d, and later s orbitals fill similarly (for example, 6s fills before 4f).

This arrangement of possible orbitals explains a great deal about the chemical properties of different atoms. The easiest way to see this is to imagine building up complex atoms by starting with hydrogen and adding one proton and one electron (along with the appropriate number of neutrons) at a time. In hydrogen the lowest-energy orbit—called the ground state—corresponds to the electron located in the shell closest to the nucleus. There are two possible states for an electron in this shell, corresponding to a clockwise spin and a counterclockwise spin (or, in the jargon of physicists, spin up and spin down).

The next most-complex atom is helium, which has two protons in its nucleus and two orbiting electrons. These electrons fill the two available states in the lowest shell, producing what is called a filled shell. The next atom is lithium, with three electrons. Because the closest shell is filled, the third electron goes into the next higher shell. This shell has spaces for eight electrons, so that it takes an atom with 10 electrons (neon) to fill the first two levels. The next atom after neon, sodium, has 11 electrons, so that one electron goes into the next highest shell.

In the progression thus far, three atoms—hydrogen, lithium, and sodium—have one electron in the outermost shell. As stated above, it is these outermost electrons that determine the chemical properties of an atom. Therefore, these three elements should have similar properties, as indeed they do. For this reason, they appear in the same column of the periodic table of the elements (see periodic law), and the same principle determines the position of every element in that table. The outermost shell of electrons—called the valence shell—determines the chemical behaviour of an atom, and the number of electrons in this shell depends on how many are left over after all the interior shells are filled.

periodic table showing the valence shells
periodic table showing the valence shells The periodic table of the elements showing the valence shells.
1. Atom and its structure

Orbits and energy levels

Unlike planets orbiting the Sun, electrons cannot be at any arbitrary distance from the nucleus; they can exist only in certain specific locations called allowed orbits. This property, first explained by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1913, is another result of quantum mechanics—specifically, the requirement that the angular momentum of an electron in orbit, like everything else in the quantum world, come in discrete bundles called quanta.

Bohr atom
Bohr atomThe electron travels in circular orbits around the nucleus. The orbits have quantized sizes and energies. Energy is emitted from the atom when the electron jumps from one orbit to another closer to the nucleus. Shown here is the first Balmer transition, in which an electron jumps from orbit n = 3 to orbit n = 2, producing a photon of red light with an energy of 1.89 eV and a wavelength of 656 nanometres.

In the Bohr atom electrons can be found only in allowed orbits, and these allowed orbits are at different energies. The orbits are analogous to a set of stairs in which the gravitational potential energy is different for each step and in which a ball can be found on any step but never in between.

The laws of quantum mechanics describe the process by which electrons can move from one allowed orbit, or energy level, to another. As with many processes in the quantum world, this process is impossible to visualize. An electron disappears from the orbit in which it is located and reappears in its new location without ever appearing any place in between. This process is called a quantum leap or quantum jump, and it has no analog in the macroscopic world.

Because different orbits have different energies, whenever a quantum leap occurs, the energy possessed by the electron will be different after the jump. For example, if an electron jumps from a higher to a lower energy level, the lost energy will have to go somewhere and in fact will be emitted by the atom in a bundle of electromagnetic radiation. This bundle is known as a photon, and this emission of photons with a change of energy levels is the process by which atoms emit light. See also laser.

In the same way, if energy is added to an atom, an electron can use that energy to make a quantum leap from a lower to a higher orbit. This energy can be supplied in many ways. One common way is for the atom to absorb a photon of just the right frequency. For example, when white light is shone on an atom, it selectively absorbs those frequencies corresponding to the energy differences between allowed orbits.

Each element has a unique set of energy levels, and so the frequencies at which it absorbs and emits light act as a kind of fingerprint, identifying the particular element. This property of atoms has given rise to spectroscopy, a science devoted to identifying atoms and molecules by the kind of radiation they emit or absorb.

This picture of the atom, with electrons moving up and down between allowed orbits, accompanied by the absorption or emission of energy, contains the essential features of the Bohr atomic model, for which Bohr received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. His basic model does not work well in explaining the details of the structure of atoms more complicated than hydrogen, however. This requires the introduction of quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics each orbiting electron is represented by a mathematical expression known as a wave function—something like a vibrating guitar string laid out along the path of the electron’s orbit. These waveforms are called orbitals. 

1. Atom and its structure

Atomic model

Most matter consists of an agglomeration of molecules, which can be separated relatively easily. Molecules, in turn, are composed of atoms joined by chemical bonds that are more difficult to break. Each individual atom consists of smaller particles—namely, electrons and nuclei. These particles are electrically charged, and the electric forces on the charge are responsible for holding the atom together. Attempts to separate these smaller constituent particles require ever-increasing amounts of energy and result in the creation of new subatomic particles, many of which are charged.

As noted in the introduction to this article, an atom consists largely of empty space. The nucleus is the positively charged centre of an atom and contains most of its mass. It is composed of protons, which have a positive charge, and neutrons, which have no charge. Protons, neutrons, and the electrons surrounding them are long-lived particles present in all ordinary, naturally occurring atoms. Other subatomic particles may be found in association with these three types of particles. They can be created only with the addition of enormous amounts of energy, however, and are very short-lived.

All atoms are roughly the same size, whether they have 3 or 90 electrons. Approximately 50 million atoms of solid matter lined up in a row would measure 1 cm (0.4 inch). A convenient unit of length for measuring atomic sizes is the angstrom (Å), defined as 10−10 metre. The radius of an atom measures 1–2 Å. Compared with the overall size of the atom, the nucleus is even more minute. It is in the same proportion to the atom as a marble is to a football field. In volume the nucleus takes up only 10−14 metres of the space in the atom—i.e., 1 part in 100,000. A convenient unit of length for measuring nuclear sizes is the femtometre (fm), which equals 10−15 metre. The diameter of a nucleus depends on the number of particles it contains and ranges from about 4 fm for a light nucleus such as carbon to 15 fm for a heavy nucleus such as lead. In spite of the small size of the nucleus, virtually all the mass of the atom is concentrated there. The protons are massive, positively charged particles, whereas the neutrons have no charge and are slightly more massive than the protons. The fact that nuclei can have anywhere from 1 to nearly 300 protons and neutrons accounts for their wide variation in mass. The lightest nucleus, that of hydrogen, is 1,836 times more massive than an electron, while heavy nuclei are nearly 500,000 times more massive.

1. Atom and its structure

Radiocarbon Dating

Carbon is normally present in the atmosphere in the form of gaseous compounds like carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon-14 (14C) is a naturally-occurring radioisotope that is created from atmospheric 14N (nitrogen) by the addition of a neutron and the loss of a proton, which is caused by cosmic rays. This is a continuous process so more 14C is always being created in the atmosphere. Once produced, the 14C often combines with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is incorporated by plants via photosynthesis. Animals eat the plants and, ultimately, the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.

In living organisms, the relative amount of 14C in their body is approximately equal to the concentration of 14C in the atmosphere. When an organism dies, it is no longer ingesting 14C, so the ratio between 14C and 12C will decline as 14C gradually decays back to 14N. This slow process, which is called beta decay, releases energy through the emission of electrons from the nucleus or positrons.

After approximately 5,730 years, half of the starting concentration of 14C will have been converted back to 14N. This is referred to as its half-life, or the time it takes for half of the original concentration of an isotope to decay back to its more stable form. Because the half-life of 14C is long, it is used to date formerly-living objects such as old bones or wood. Comparing the ratio of the 14C concentration found in an object to the amount of 14C in the atmosphere, the amount of the isotope that has not yet decayed can be determined. On the basis of this amount, the age of the material can be accurately calculated, as long as the material is believed to be less than 50,000 years old. This technique is called radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating for short.image

Application of carbon dating: The age of carbon-containing remains less than 50,000 years old, such as this pygmy mammoth, can be determined using carbon dating.

Other elements have isotopes with different half lives. For example, 40K (potassium-40) has a half-life of 1.25 billion years, and 235U (uranium-235) has a half-life of about 700 million years. Scientists often use these other radioactive elements to date objects that are older than 50,000 years (the limit of carbon dating). Through the use of radiometric dating, scientists can study the age of fossils or other remains of extinct organisms.

1. Atom and its structure


Isotopes are various forms of an element that have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons.

What is an Isotope?

Isotopes are various forms of an element that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Some elements, such as carbon, potassium, and uranium, have multiple naturally-occurring isotopes. Isotopes are defined first by their element and then by the sum of the protons and neutrons present.

  • Carbon-12 (or 12C) contains six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons; therefore, it has a mass number of 12 amu (six protons and six neutrons).
  • Carbon-14 (or 14C) contains six protons, eight neutrons, and six electrons; its atomic mass is 14 amu (six protons and eight neutrons).

While the mass of individual isotopes is different, their physical and chemical properties remain mostly unchanged.

Isotopes do differ in their stability. Carbon-12 (12C) is the most abundant of the carbon isotopes, accounting for 98.89% of carbon on Earth. Carbon-14 (14C) is unstable and only occurs in trace amounts. Unstable isotopes most commonly emit alpha particles (He2+) and electrons. Neutrons, protons, and positrons can also be emitted and electrons can be captured to attain a more stable atomic configuration (lower level of potential energy ) through a process called radioactive decay. The new atoms created may be in a high energy state and emit gamma rays which lowers the energy but alone does not change the atom into another isotope. These atoms are called radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes.

1. Atom and its structure

Atomic Number and Mass Number

The atomic number is the number of protons in an element, while the mass number is the number of protons plus the number of neutrons.

Atomic Number

Neutral atoms of an element contain an equal number of protons and electrons. The number of protons determines an element’s atomic number (Z) and distinguishes one element from another. For example, carbon’s atomic number (Z) is 6 because it has 6 protons. The number of neutrons can vary to produce isotopes, which are atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons. The number of electrons can also be different in atoms of the same element, thus producing ions (charged atoms). For instance, iron, Fe, can exist in its neutral state, or in the +2 and +3  ionic states.

Mass Number

An element’s mass number (A) is the sum of the number of protons and the number of neutrons. The small contribution of mass from electrons is disregarded in calculating the mass number. This approximation of mass can be used to easily calculate how many neutrons an element has by simply subtracting the number of protons from the mass number. Protons and neutrons both weigh about one atomic mass unit or amu. Isotopes of the same element will have the same atomic number but different mass numbers.image

Atomic number, chemical symbol, and mass number: Carbon has an atomic number of six, and two stable isotopes with mass numbers of twelve and thirteen, respectively. Its average atomic mass is 12.11.

Scientists determine the atomic mass by calculating the mean of the mass numbers for its naturally-occurring isotopes. Often, the resulting number contains a decimal. For example, the atomic mass of chlorine (Cl) is 35.45 amu because chlorine is composed of several isotopes, some (the majority) with an atomic mass of 35 amu (17 protons and 18 neutrons) and some with an atomic mass of 37 amu (17 protons and 20 neutrons).

Given an atomic number (Z) and mass number (A), you can find the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in a neutral atom. For example, a lithium atom (Z=3, A=7 amu) contains three protons (found from Z), three electrons (as the number of protons is equal to the number of electrons in an atom), and four neutrons (7 – 3 = 4).

1. Atom and its structure

Volume of Atoms

Accounting for the sizes of protons, neutrons, and electrons, most of the volume of an atom—greater than 99 percent—is, in fact, empty space. Despite all this empty space, solid objects do not just pass through one another. The electrons that surround all atoms are negatively charged and cause atoms to repel one another, preventing atoms from occupying the same space. These intermolecular forces prevent you from falling through an object like your chair.

1. Atom and its structure

Atomic Mass

Protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass, about 1.67 × 10-24 grams. Scientists define this amount of mass as one atomic mass unit (amu) or one Dalton. Although similar in mass, protons are positively charged, while neutrons have no charge. Therefore, the number of neutrons in an atom contributes significantly to its mass, but not to its charge.

Electrons are much smaller in mass than protons, weighing only 9.11 × 10-28 grams, or about 1/1800 of an atomic mass unit. Therefore, they do not contribute much to an element’s overall atomic mass. When considering atomic mass, it is customary to ignore the mass of any electrons and calculate the atom’s mass based on the number of protons and neutrons alone.

Electrons contribute greatly to the atom’s charge, as each electron has a negative charge equal to the positive charge of a proton. Scientists define these charges as “+1” and “-1. ” In an uncharged, neutral atom, the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus is equal to the number of protons inside the nucleus. In these atoms, the positive and negative charges cancel each other out, leading to an atom with no net charge.image

Protons, neutrons, and electrons: Both protons and neutrons have a mass of 1 amu and are found in the nucleus. However, protons have a charge of +1, and neutrons are uncharged. Electrons have a mass of approximately 0 amu, orbit the nucleus, and have a charge of -1.

Exploring Electron Properties: Compare the behavior of electrons to that of other charged particles to discover properties of electrons such as charge and mass.

1. Atom and its structure

Atomic Particles

Atoms consist of three basic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons. The nucleus (center) of the atom contains the protons (positively charged) and the neutrons (no charge). The outermost regions of the atom are called electron shells and contain the electrons (negatively charged). Atoms have different properties based on the arrangement and number of their basic particles.

The hydrogen atom (H) contains only one proton, one electron, and no neutrons. This can be determined using the atomic number and the mass number of the element (see the concept on atomic numbers and mass numbers).image

Structure of an atom: Elements, such as helium, depicted here, are made up of atoms. Atoms are made up of protons and neutrons located within the nucleus, with electrons in orbitals surrounding the nucleus.