1-2-2. Elements and Atoms: The Building Blocks of Matter
The substance of the universe—from a grain of sand to a star—is called
Elements and Compounds
All matter in the natural world is composed of one or more of the 92 fundamental substances called elements. An
In nature, elements rarely occur alone. Instead, they combine to form compounds. A
Atoms and Subatomic Particles
Atomic Structure and Energy
Atoms are made up of even smaller subatomic particles, three types of which are important: the
Figure 2 shows two models that can help you imagine the structure of an atom—in this case, helium (He). In the planetary model, helium’s two electrons are shown circling the nucleus in a fixed orbit depicted as a ring. Although this model is helpful in visualizing atomic structure, in reality, electrons do not travel in fixed orbits, but whiz around the nucleus erratically in a so-called electron cloud.
Two Models of Atomic Structure
An atom’s protons and electrons carry electrical charges. Protons, with their positive charge, are designated p+. Electrons, which have a negative charge, are designated e–. An atom’s neutrons have no charge: they are electrically neutral. Just as a magnet sticks to a steel refrigerator because their opposite charges attract, the positively charged protons attract the negatively charged electrons. This mutual attraction gives the atom some structural stability. The attraction by the positively charged nucleus helps keep electrons from straying far. The number of protons and electrons within a neutral atom are equal, thus, the atom’s overall charge is balanced.
Atomic Number and Mass Number
An atom of carbon is unique to carbon, but a proton of carbon is not. One proton is the same as another, whether it is found in an atom of carbon, sodium (Na), or iron (Fe). The same is true for neutrons and electrons. So, what gives an element its distinctive properties—what makes carbon so different from sodium or iron? The answer is the unique quantity of protons each contains. Carbon by definition is an element whose atoms contain six protons. No other element has exactly six protons in its atoms. Moreover, all atoms of carbon, whether found in your liver or in a lump of coal, contain six protons. Thus, the
In their most common form, many elements also contain the same number of neutrons as protons. The most common form of carbon, for example, has six neutrons as well as six protons, for a total of 12 subatomic particles in its nucleus. An element’s
Visit this website to view the periodic table. In the periodic table of the elements, elements in a single column have the same number of electrons that can participate in a chemical reaction. These electrons are known as “valence electrons.” For example, the elements in the first column all have a single valence electron, an electron that can be “donated” in a chemical reaction with another atom. What is the meaning of a mass number shown in parentheses?
Although each element has a unique number of protons, it can exist as different isotopes. An
Isotopes of Hydrogen
An isotope that contains more than the usual number of neutrons is referred to as a heavy isotope. An example is 14C. Heavy isotopes tend to be unstable, and unstable isotopes are radioactive. A
The controlled use of radioisotopes has advanced medical diagnosis and treatment of disease. Interventional radiologists are physicians who treat disease by using minimally invasive techniques involving radiation. Many conditions that could once only be treated with a lengthy and traumatic operation can now be treated non-surgically, reducing the cost, pain, length of hospital stay, and recovery time for patients. For example, in the past, the only options for a patient with one or more tumors in the liver were surgery and chemotherapy (the administration of drugs to treat cancer). Some liver tumors, however, are difficult to access surgically, and others could require the surgeon to remove too much of the liver. Moreover, chemotherapy is highly toxic to the liver, and certain tumors do not respond well to it anyway. In some such cases, an interventional radiologist can treat the tumors by disrupting their blood supply, which they need if they are to continue to grow. In this procedure, called radioembolization, the radiologist accesses the liver with a fine needle, threaded through one of the patient’s blood vessels. The radiologist then inserts tiny radioactive “seeds” into the blood vessels that supply the tumors. In the days and weeks following the procedure, the radiation emitted from the seeds destroys the vessels and directly kills the tumor cells in the vicinity of the treatment.
Radioisotopes emit subatomic particles that can be detected and tracked by imaging technologies. One of the most advanced uses of radioisotopes in medicine is the positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which detects the activity in the body of a very small injection of radioactive glucose, the simple sugar that cells use for energy. The PET camera reveals to the medical team which of the patient’s tissues are taking up the most glucose. Thus, the most metabolically active tissues show up as bright “hot spots” on the images (Figure 5). PET can reveal some cancerous masses because cancer cells consume glucose at a high rate to fuel their rapid reproduction.
The Behavior of Electrons
In the human body, atoms do not exist as independent entities. Rather, they are constantly reacting with other atoms to form and to break down more complex substances. To fully understand anatomy and physiology you must grasp how atoms participate in such reactions. The key is understanding the behavior of electrons.
Although electrons do not follow rigid orbits a set distance away from the atom’s nucleus, they do tend to stay within certain regions of space called electron shells. An
The atoms of the elements found in the human body have from one to five electron shells, and all electron shells hold eight electrons except the first shell, which can only hold two. This configuration of electron shells is the same for all atoms. The precise number of shells depends on the number of electrons in the atom. Hydrogen and helium have just one and two electrons, respectively. If you take a look at the periodic table of the elements, you will notice that hydrogen and helium are placed alone on either sides of the top row; they are the only elements that have just one electron shell (Figure 6). A second shell is necessary to hold the electrons in all elements larger than hydrogen and helium.
Lithium (Li), whose atomic number is 3, has three electrons. Two of these fill the first electron shell, and the third spills over into a second shell. The second electron shell can accommodate as many as eight electrons. Carbon, with its six electrons, entirely fills its first shell, and half-fills its second. With ten electrons, neon (Ne) entirely fills its two electron shells. Again, a look at the periodic table reveals that all of the elements in the second row, from lithium to neon, have just two electron shells. Atoms with more than ten electrons require more than two shells. These elements occupy the third and subsequent rows of the periodic table.
The factor that most strongly governs the tendency of an atom to participate in chemical reactions is the number of electrons in its valence shell. A
All atoms (except hydrogen and helium with their single electron shells) are most stable when there are exactly eight electrons in their valence shell. This principle is referred to as the octet rule, and it states that an atom will give up, gain, or share electrons with another atom so that it ends up with eight electrons in its own valence shell. For example, oxygen, with six electrons in its valence shell, is likely to react with other atoms in a way that results in the addition of two electrons to oxygen’s valence shell, bringing the number to eight. When two hydrogen atoms each share their single electron with oxygen, covalent bonds are formed, resulting in a molecule of water, H2O.
In nature, atoms of one element tend to join with atoms of other elements in characteristic ways. For example, carbon commonly fills its valence shell by linking up with four atoms of hydrogen. In so doing, the two elements form the simplest of organic molecules, methane, which also is one of the most abundant and stable carbon-containing compounds on Earth. As stated above, another example is water; oxygen needs two electrons to fill its valence shell. It commonly interacts with two atoms of hydrogen, forming H2O. Incidentally, the name “hydrogen” reflects its contribution to water (hydro- = “water”; -gen = “maker”). Thus, hydrogen is the “water maker.”
The human body is composed of elements, the most abundant of which are oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and nitrogen (N). You obtain these elements from the foods you eat and the air you breathe. The smallest unit of an element that retains all of the properties of that element is an atom. But, atoms themselves contain many subatomic particles, the three most important of which are protons, neutrons, and electrons. These particles do not vary in quality from one element to another; rather, what gives an element its distinctive identification is the quantity of its protons, called its atomic number. Protons and neutrons contribute nearly all of an atom’s mass; the number of protons and neutrons is an element’s mass number. Heavier and lighter versions of the same element can occur in nature because these versions have different numbers of neutrons. Different versions of an element are called isotopes.
The tendency of an atom to be stable or to react readily with other atoms is largely due to the behavior of the electrons within the atom’s outermost electron shell, called its valence shell. Helium, as well as larger atoms with eight electrons in their valence shell, is unlikely to participate in chemical reactions because they are stable. All other atoms tend to accept, donate, or share electrons in a process that brings the electrons in their valence shell to eight (or in the case of hydrogen, to two).
Interactive Link Questions
Visit this website to view the periodic table. In the periodic table of the elements, elements in a single column have the same number of electrons that can participate in a chemical reaction. These electrons are known as “valence electrons.” For example, the elements in the first column all have a single valence electron—an electron that can be “donated” in a chemical reaction with another atom. What is the meaning of a mass number shown in parentheses?
The mass number is the total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom.
Together, just four elements make up more than 95 percent of the body’s mass. These include ________.
The smallest unit of an element that still retains the distinctive behavior of that element is an ________.
The characteristic that gives an element its distinctive properties is its number of ________.
On the periodic table of the elements, mercury (Hg) has an atomic number of 80 and a mass number of 200.59. It has seven stable isotopes. The most abundant of these probably have ________.
Nitrogen has an atomic number of seven. How many electron shells does it likely have?
Critical Thinking Questions
The most abundant elements in the foods and beverages you consume are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Why might having these elements in consumables be useful?
These four elements—oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen—together make up more than 95 percent of the mass of the human body, and the body cannot make elements, so it is helpful to have them in consumables.
Oxygen, whose atomic number is eight, has three stable isotopes: 16O, 17O, and 18O. Explain what this means in terms of the number of protons and neutrons.
Oxygen has eight protons. In its most abundant stable form, it has eight neutrons, too, for a mass number of 16. In contrast, 17O has nine neutrons, and 18O has 10 neutrons.
Magnesium is an important element in the human body, especially in bones. Magnesium’s atomic number is 12. Is it stable or reactive? Why? If it were to react with another atom, would it be more likely to accept or to donate one or more electrons?
Magnesium’s 12 electrons are distributed as follows: two in the first shell, eight in the second shell, and two in its valence shell. According to the octet rule, magnesium is unstable (reactive) because its valence shell has just two electrons. It is therefore likely to participate in chemical reactions in which it donates two electrons.
periodic table of the elements