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

Electron Orbitals

Although useful to explain the reactivity and chemical bonding of certain elements, the Bohr model does not accurately reflect how electrons spatially distribute themselves around the nucleus. They do not circle the nucleus like the earth orbits the sun, but we find them in electron orbitals. These relatively complex shapes result from the fact that electrons behave not just like particles, but also like waves. Mathematical equations from quantum mechanics, which scientists call wave functions, can predict within a certain level of probability where an electron might be at any given time. Scientists call the area where an electron is most likely to be found its orbital.

Recall that the Bohr model depicts an atom’s electron shell configuration. Within each electron shell are subshells, and each subshell has a specified number of orbitals containing electrons. While it is impossible to calculate exactly an electron's location, scientists know that it is most probably located within its orbital path. The letter s, p, d, and f designate the subshells. The s subshell is spherical in shape and has one orbital. Principal shell 1n has only a single s orbital, which can hold two electrons. Principal shell 2n has one s and one p subshell, and can hold a total of eight electrons. The p subshell has three dumbbell-shaped orbitals, as Figure illustrates. Subshells d and f have more complex shapes and contain five and seven orbitals, respectively. We do not show these in the illustration. Principal shell 3n has s, p, and d subshells and can hold 18 electrons. Principal shell 4n has s, p, d and f orbitals and can hold 32 electrons. Moving away from the nucleus, the number of electrons and orbitals in the energy levels increases. Progressing from one atom to the next in the periodic table, we can determine the electron structure by fitting an extra electron into the next available orbital.

Illustration shows 1ns, 2ns and 2np subshells. The 1ns subshell and 2ns subshells are both spheres, but the 2ns sphere is larger than the 1ns sphere. The 2np subshell is made up of three dumbbells that radiate out from the center of the atom.
The s subshells are shaped like spheres. Both the 1n and 2n principal shells have an s orbital, but the size of the sphere is larger in the 2n orbital. Each sphere is a single orbital. Three dumbbell-shaped orbitals comprise p subshells. Principal shell 2n has a p subshell, but shell 1 does not.

The closest orbital to the nucleus, the 1s orbital, can hold up to two electrons. This orbital is equivalent to the Bohr model's innermost electron shell. Scientists call it the 1s orbital because it is spherical around the nucleus. The 1s orbital is the closest orbital to the nucleus, and it is always filled first, before any other orbital fills. Hydrogen has one electron; therefore, it occupies only one spot within the 1s orbital. We designate this as 1s1, where the superscripted 1 refers to the one electron within the 1s orbital. Helium has two electrons; therefore, it can completely fill the 1s orbital with its two electrons. We designate this as 1s2, referring to the two electrons of helium in the 1s orbital. On the periodic table Figure, hydrogen and helium are the only two elements in the first row (period). This is because they only have electrons in their first shell, the 1s orbital. Hydrogen and helium are the only two elements that have the 1s and no other electron orbitals in the electrically neutral state.

The second electron shell may contain eight electrons. This shell contains another spherical s orbital and three “dumbbell” shaped p orbitals, each of which can hold two electrons, as Figure shows. After the 1s orbital fills, the second electron shell fills, first filling its 2s orbital and then its three p orbitals. When filling the p orbitals, each takes a single electron. Once each p orbital has an electron, it may add a second. Lithium (Li) contains three electrons that occupy the first and second shells. Two electrons fill the 1s orbital, and the third electron then fills the 2s orbital. Its electron configuration is 1s22s1. Neon (Ne), alternatively, has a total of ten electrons: two are in its innermost 1s orbital and eight fill its second shell (two each in the 2s and three p orbitals). Thus it is an inert gas and energetically stable as a single atom that will rarely form a chemical bond with other atoms. Larger elements have additional orbitals, comprising the third electron shell. While the concepts of electron shells and orbitals are closely related, orbitals provide a more accurate depiction of an atom's electron configuration because the orbital model specifies the different shapes and special orientations of all the places that electrons may occupy.

Link to Learning

Watch this visual animation to see the spatial arrangement of the p and s orbitals.