Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks

The Structure of the Atom

To understand how elements come together, we must first discuss the element's smallest component or building block, the atom. An atom is the smallest unit of matter that retains all of the element's chemical properties. For example, one gold atom has all of the properties of gold in that it is a solid metal at room temperature. A gold coin is simply a very large number of gold atoms molded into the shape of a coin and contains small amounts of other elements known as impurities. We cannot break down gold atoms into anything smaller while still retaining the properties of gold.

An atom is composed of two regions: the nucleus, which is in the atom's center and contains protons and neutrons. The atom's outermost region holds its electrons in orbit around the nucleus, as Figure illustrates. Atoms contain protons, electrons, and neutrons, among other subatomic particles. The only exception is hydrogen (H), which is made of one proton and one electron with no neutrons.

This illustration shows that, like planets orbiting the sun, electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom. The nucleus contains two neutrally charged neutrons, and two positively charged protons represented by spheres. A single, circular orbital surrounding the nucleus contains two negatively charged electrons on opposite sides.
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.

Protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass, about 1.67 × 10-24 grams. Scientists arbitrarily define this amount of mass as one atomic mass unit (amu) or one Dalton, as Table shows. Although similar in mass, protons and neutrons differ in their electric charge. A proton is positively charged; whereas, a neutron is uncharged. 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. Hence, they do not contribute much to an element’s overall atomic mass. Therefore, 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. Although not significant contributors to mass, electrons do contribute greatly to the atom’s charge, as each electron has a negative charge equal to the proton's positive charge. In uncharged, neutral atoms, 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.

Accounting for the sizes of protons, neutrons, and electrons, most of the atom's volume—greater than 99 percent—is empty space. With all this empty space, one might ask why so-called solid objects do not just pass through one another. The reason they do not is that the electrons that surround all atoms are negatively charged and negative charges repel each other.

Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons
Charge Mass (amu) Location
Proton +1 1 nucleus
Neutron 0 1 nucleus
Electron –1 0 orbitals
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