# 2 The Atom and Elements

The development of modern atomic theory revealed much about the inner structure of atoms. An atom contains a very small nucleus composed of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, surrounded by a much larger volume of space containing negatively charged electrons. The nucleus contains the majority of an atom’s mass because protons and neutrons are much heavier than electrons, whereas electrons occupy almost all of an atom’s volume. The diameter of an atom is on the order of 1010 m, whereas the diameter of the nucleus is roughly 1015 m—about 100,000 times smaller. For a perspective about their relative sizes, consider this: If the nucleus were the size of a blueberry, the atom would be about the size of a football stadium (Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1 If an atom could be expanded to the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a single blueberry. (credit middle: modification of work by “babyknight”/Wikimedia Commons; credit right: modification of work by Paxson Woelber)

Atoms—and the protons, neutrons, and electrons that compose them—are extremely small. For example, a carbon atom weighs less than 2 × 1023 g, and an electron has a charge of less than 2 × 1019 C (coulomb). When describing the properties of tiny objects such as atoms we use appropriately small units of measure, such as the atomic mass unit (amu) and the fundamental unit of charge (e). The amu was originally defined based on hydrogen, the lightest element, then later in terms of oxygen. Since 1961, it has been defined with regard to the most abundant isotope of carbon, atoms of which are assigned masses of exactly 12 amu. (This isotope is known as “carbon-12” as will be discussed later in this module.) Thus, one amu is exactly a 12th of the mass of one carbon-12 atom: 1 amu = 1.6605 ×1024 g.  The fundamental unit of charge (also called the elementary charge) equals the magnitude of the charge of an electron (e) with e = 1.602 ×1019 C.

A proton has a mass of 1.0073 amu and a charge of 1+. A neutron is a slightly heavier particle with a mass 1.0087 amu and a charge of zero; as its name suggests, it is neutral. The electron has a charge of 1− and is a much lighter particle with a mass of about 0.00055 amu (it would take about 1800 electrons to equal the mass of one proton). The properties of these fundamental particles are summarized in Table 2.1. (An observant student might notice that the sum of an atom’s subatomic particles does not equal the atom’s actual mass: The total mass of six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons is 12.0993 amu, slightly larger than 12.00 amu. This “missing” mass is known as the mass defect.)

 Properties of Subatomic Particles Name Location Charge (C) Unit Charge Mass (amu) Mass (g) electron outside nucleus −1.602 x10−19 1− 0.00055 0.00091 x10−24 proton nucleus 1.602 x10−19 1+ 1.00727 1.67262 x10−24 neutron nucleus 0 0 1.00866 1.67493 x10−24

Table2.1

The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom is its atomic number (Z). This is the defining trait of an element: Its value determines the identity of the atom. For example, any atom that contains six protons is the element carbon and has the atomic number 6, regardless of how many neutrons or electrons it may have. A neutral atom must contain the same number of positive and negative charges, so the number of protons equals the number of electrons. Therefore, the atomic number also indicates the number of electrons in an atom. The total number of protons and neutrons in an atom is called its mass number (A). The number of neutrons is therefore the difference between the mass number and the atomic number: A – Z = number of neutrons.

Atoms are electrically neutral if they contain the same number of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. When the numbers of these subatomic particles are not equal, the atom is electrically charged and is called an ion. The charge of an atom is defined as follows:

Atomic charge = number of protons − number of electrons

As will be discussed in more detail, atoms (and molecules) typically acquire charge by gaining or losing electrons. A cation (a positive ion) forms when a neutral atom loses one or more electrons from its valence shell, and an anion (a negative ion) forms when a neutral atom gains one or more electrons in its valence shell. For example, a neutral sodium atom (Z = 11) has 11 electrons. If this atom loses one electron, it will become a cation with a 1+ charge (11 − 10 = 1+). A neutral oxygen atom (Z = 8) has eight electrons, and if it gains two electrons it will become an anion with a 2− charge (8 − 10 = 2−).

Figure 2.2 When a neutral sodium atom (Na) loses an electron it gains a 1+ charge and becomes a cation. When a neutral oxygen (O) atom gains 2 electrons it gains a 2- charge and becomes an anion.

EXAMPLE 2.1 Composition of an Atom

Iodine is an essential trace element in our diet; it is needed to produce thyroid hormone. Insufficient iodine in the diet can lead to the development of a goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland (Figure 2.3).

Figure 2.3 (a) Insufficient iodine in the diet can cause an enlargement of the thyroid gland called a goiter. (b) The addition of small amounts of iodine to salt, which prevents the formation of goiters, has helped eliminate this concern in the US where salt consumption is high. (credit a: modification of work by “Almazi”/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by Mike Mozart)

The addition of small amounts of iodine to table salt (iodized salt) has essentially eliminated this health concern in the United States, but as much as 40% of the world’s population is still at risk of iodine deficiency. The iodine atoms are added as anions, and each has a 1− charge, a mass number of 127, and the atomic number 53. Determine the numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons in one of these iodine anions.

Solution

The atomic number of iodine (53) tells us that a neutral iodine atom contains 53 protons in its nucleus and 53 electrons outside its nucleus. Because the sum of the numbers of protons and neutrons equals the mass number, 127, the number of neutrons is 74 (127 − 53 = 74). Since the iodine is added as a 1− anion, the number of electrons is 54 [53 – (1–) = 54].

Check Your Learning: An ion of platinum has a mass number of 195 and contains 74 electrons. How many protons and neutrons does it contain, and what is its charge?

ANSWER: 78 protons; 117 neutrons; charge is 4+

Chemical Symbols

A chemical symbol is an abbreviation that we use to indicate an element or an atom of an element. For example, the symbol for mercury is Hg (Figure 2.4). We use the same symbol to indicate one atom of mercury (microscopic domain) or to label a container of many atoms of the element mercury (macroscopic domain).

Figure 2.4 The symbol Hg represents the element mercury regardless of the amount; it could represent one atom of mercury or a large amount of mercury.

The symbols for several common elements and their atoms are listed in Table 2.2. Some symbols are derived from the common name of the element; others are abbreviations of the name in another language. Most symbols have one or two letters, but three-letter symbols have been used to describe some elements that have atomic numbers greater than 112. To avoid confusion with other notations, only the first letter of a symbol is capitalized. For example, Co is the symbol for the element cobalt, but CO is the notation for the compound carbon monoxide, which contains atoms of the elements carbon (C) and oxygen (O). All known elements and their symbols are in the periodic table.

 Some Common Elements and Their Symbols Element Symbol Element Symbol aluminum Al iron Fe (from ferrum) bromine Br lead Pb (from plumbum) calcium Ca magnesium Mg carbon C mercury Hg (from hydrargyrum) chlorine Cl nitrogen N chromium Cr oxygen O cobalt Co potassium K (from kalium) copper Cu (from cuprum) silicon Si fluorine F silver Ag (from argentum) gold Au (from aurum) sodium Na (from natrium) helium He sulfur S hydrogen H tin Sn (from stannum) iodine I zinc Zn

Table2.2

Traditionally, the discoverer (or discoverers) of a new element names the element. However, until the name is recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the recommended name of the new element is based on the Latin word(s) for its atomic number. For example, element 106 was called unnilhexium (Unh), element 107 was called unnilseptium (Uns), and element 108 was called unniloctium (Uno) for several years. These elements are now named after scientists (or occasionally locations); for example, element 106 is now known as seaborgium (Sg) in honor of Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner who was active in the discovery of several heavy elements.

LINK TO LEARNING: Visit the IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, website to learn more and explore its periodic table listed here: IUPAC.

Isotopes

The symbol for a specific isotope of any element is written by placing the mass number as a superscript to the left of the element symbol (Figure 2.5). The atomic number is sometimes written as a subscript preceding the symbol, but since this number defines the element’s identity, as does its symbol, it is often omitted. For example, magnesium exists as a mixture of three isotopes, each with an atomic number of 12 and with mass numbers of 24, 25, and 26, respectively. These isotopes can be identified as 24Mg, 25Mg, and 26Mg. These isotope symbols are read as “element, mass number” and can be symbolized consistent with this reading. For instance, 24Mg is read as “magnesium 24,” and can be written as “magnesium-24” or “Mg-24.” 25Mg is read as “magnesium 25,” and can be written as “magnesium-25” or “Mg-25.” All magnesium atoms have 12 protons in their nucleus. They differ only because a 24Mg atom has 12 neutrons in its nucleus, a 25Mg atom has 13 neutrons, and a 26Mg has 14 neutrons.

Figure 2.5 The symbol for an atom indicates the element via its usual two-letter symbol, the mass number as a left superscript, the atomic number as a left subscript (sometimes omitted), and the charge as a right superscript.

LINK TO LEARNING: Use this building an atom simulator to build atoms of the first 10 elements, see which isotopes exist, check nuclear stability, and gain experience with isotope symbols: PhET Build an Atom simulator.

Atomic Mass

Because each proton and each neutron contribute approximately one amu to the mass of an atom, and each electron contributes far less, the atomic mass of a single atom is approximately equal to its mass number (a whole number). However, the average masses of atoms of most elements are not whole numbers because most elements exist naturally as mixtures of two or more isotopes.

The mass of an element shown in a periodic table or listed in a table of atomic masses is a weighted, average mass of all the isotopes present in a naturally occurring sample of that element.

For example, the element boron is composed of two isotopes: About 19.9% of all boron atoms are 10B with a mass of 10.0129 amu, and the remaining 80.1% are 11B with a mass of 11.0093 amu. The average atomic mass is then calculated by multiplying the individual atomic masses of the isotopes to their respective percent abundances and adding their products together.

For boron, as 19.9% and 80.1% are equal to 0.199 and 0.801, we have

(10.0129 amu x 0.199) + (11.0093 amu x 0.801) = 10.8 amu

It is important to understand that no single boron atom weighs exactly 10.8 amu; 10.8 amu is the average mass of all boron atoms, and individual boron atoms weigh either approximately 10 amu or 11 amu.

LINK TO LEARNING: Use this simulation to make mixtures of the main isotopes of the first 18 elements, gain experience with average atomic mass, and check naturally occurring isotope ratios using the Isotopes and Atomic Mass simulation: PhET Isotopes and Atomic Mass simulation.

The occurrence and natural abundances of isotopes can be experimentally determined using an instrument called a mass spectrometer. Mass spectrometry (MS) is widely used in chemistry, forensics, medicine, environmental science, and many other fields to analyze and help identify the substances in a sample of material. In a typical mass spectrometer (Figure 2.6), the sample is vaporized and exposed to a high-energy electron beam that causes the sample’s atoms (or molecules) to become electrically charged, typically by losing one or more electrons. These cations then pass through a (variable) electric or magnetic field that deflects each cation’s path to an extent that depends on both its mass and charge. The ions are detected, and a plot of the relative number of ions generated versus their mass-to-charge ratios (a mass spectrum) is made. The height of each vertical feature or peak in a mass spectrum is proportional to the fraction of cations with the specified mass-to-charge ratio. Since its initial use during the development of modern atomic theory, MS has evolved to become a powerful tool for chemical analysis in a wide range of applications.

Figure 2.6 Analysis of zirconium in a mass spectrometer produces a mass spectrum with peaks showing the different isotopes of Zr.

LINK TO LEARNING: See this video Bozeman Science that explains mass spectrometry: Mass Spectrometry. Watch this video from the Royal Society for Chemistry for a brief description of the rudiments of mass spectrometry: Mass Spectrometry MS.

Electrons

Electrons in successive atoms on the periodic table tend to fill low-energy orbitals first. The arrangement of electrons in the orbitals of an atom is called the electron configuration of the atom.

The Aufbau Principle

To determine the electron configuration for any particular atom, we can “build” the structures in the order of atomic numbers. Beginning with hydrogen, and continuing across the periods of the periodic table, we add one proton at a time to the nucleus and one electron to the proper subshell until we have described the electron configurations of all the elements. This procedure is called the Aufbau principle, from the German word Aufbau (“to build up”). Each added electron occupies the subshell of lowest energy available. Electrons enter higher-energy subshells only after lower-energy subshells have been filled to capacity.

Electron Configurations and the Periodic Table

The periodic table arranges atoms based on increasing atomic number so that elements with the same chemical properties recur periodically.  Because they are in the outer shells of an atom, valence electrons play the most important role in chemical reactions (Figure 2.7). The outer electrons have the highest energy of the electrons in an atom and are more easily lost or shared than the core electrons. Valence electrons are also the determining factor in some physical properties of the elements.

Figure 2.7 A Bohr model of an atom of sodium (Na) illustrating core electrons at lower energy levels (which are shells closer to the nucleus) and its single valence electron at its outermost (3rd) shell.

Elements in any one group (or column) have the same number of valence electrons; the alkali metals lithium and sodium each have only one valence electron, the alkaline earth metals beryllium and magnesium each have two, and the halogens fluorine and chlorine each have seven valence electrons. The similarity in chemical properties among elements of the same group occurs because they have the same number of valence electrons. It is the loss, gain, or sharing of valence electrons that defines how elements react.

It is important to remember that the periodic table was developed on the basis of the chemical behavior of the elements, well before any idea of their atomic structure was available. Now we can understand why the periodic table has the arrangement it has—the arrangement puts elements whose atoms have the same number of valence electrons in the same group.