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Engineering LibreTexts

1.1: The Structure of Atoms

  • Page ID
    31533
  • An atom consists of a positively charged nucleus, surrounded by one or more negatively charged particles called electrons. The positive charges equal the negative charges, so the atom has no overall charge; it is electrically neutral. Most of an atom's mass is in its nucleus; the mass of an electron is only 1/1836 the mass of the lightest nucleus, that of hydrogen. Although the nucleus is heavy, it is quite small compared with the overall size of an atom. The radius of a typical atom is around 0.1 to 0.25 nanometres (nm), whereas the radius of a nucleus is about 10-6 nm. * If an atom were enlarged to the size of the earth, its nucleus would be only 200 feet in diameter and could easily rest inside a small football stadium.

    Table 1-1. Fundamental Particles of Matter

    Particle Charge Mass (amu)
    Proton +1 1.00728
    Neutron 0 1.00867
    Electron -1 0.000549

    The nucleus of an atom contains protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons have nearly equal masses, but they differ in charge. A neutron has no charge, whereas a proton has a positive charge that exactly balances the negative charge on an electron. Table 1-1 lists the charges of these three fundamental particles, and gives their masses expressed in atomic mass units. The atomic mass unit (amu) is defined as exactly one-twelfth the mass of the nucleus of a carbon atom consisting of six protons and six neutrons. With this scale, protons and neutrons have masses that are close to, but not precisely, 1 amu each. [As a matter of information at this point, there are approximately 6.022 X 1023 amu in 1 gram (g). This number is known as Avogadro's number, N.]

    The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom is known as the atomic number, Z. It is the same as the number of electrons around the nucleus, because an atom is electrically neutral. When two atoms are close enough to combine chemically - to form chemical bonds with one another - each atom "sees" mainly the outermost electrons of the other atom. Hence these outer electrons are the most important factors in the chemical behavior of atoms. Neutrons in the nucleus have little effect on chemical behavior, and the protons are significant only because they determine how many electrons surround the nucleus in a neutral atom. All atoms with the same atomic number behave in much the same way chemically and are classified as the same chemical element. Each element has its own name and a one- or two-letter symbol (usually derived from the element's English or Latin name). For example, the symbol for carbon is C, and the symbol for calcium is Ca. The symbol for sodium is Na - the first two letters of its Latin (and German) name, natrium - to distinguish it from nitrogen, N, and sulfur, S.

    Note

    One nanometre equals 10-9 meters (m), or 10-7 centimeters (cm). Be familiar with metric prefixes from mega (M) on the high end to nano (n) on the low end. Tables of metrix prefix abbreviations are readily available online, for quick reference.