Chemistry » Essential Ideas in Chemistry » Electronic Configuration

Electronic Configuration

The Energy of Electrons

The electrons of an atom all have the same charge and the same mass, but each electron has a different amount of energy. Electrons that have the lowest energy are found closest to the nucleus (where the attractive force of the positively charged nucleus is the greatest) and the electrons that have higher energy (and are able to overcome the attractive force of the nucleus) are found further away.

Electron Arrangement

We will start with a very simple view of the arrangement or configuration of electrons around an atom. This view simply states that electrons are arranged in energy levels (or shells) around the nucleus of an atom. These energy levels are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. Electrons that are in the first energy level (energy level 1) are closest to the nucleus and will have the lowest energy. Electrons further away from the nucleus will have a higher energy.

In the following examples, the energy levels are shown as concentric circles around the central nucleus. The important thing to know for these diagrams is that the first energy level can hold 2 electrons, the second energy level can hold 8 electrons and the third energy level can hold 8 electrons.

1. Lithium

Lithium (\(\text{Li}\)) has an atomic number of 3, meaning that in a neutral atom, the number of electrons will also be 3. The first two electrons are found in the first energy level, while the third electron is found in the second energy level (see figure below)

6697d1d8f904b1cdbb6bc95830848495.png

Electron arrangement of a lithium atom.

2. Fluorine

Fluorine (\(\text{F}\)) has an atomic number of 9, meaning that a neutral atom also has 9 electrons. The first 2 electrons are found in the first energy level, while the other 7 are found in the second energy level (see figure below).

771f30e5a24ff910b47988729853f115.png

Electron arrangement of a fluorine atom.

3. Neon

Neon (\(\text{Ne}\)) has an atomic number of 10, meaning that a neutral atom also has 10 electrons. The first 2 electrons are found in the first energy level and the last 8 are found in the second energy level. (see figure below)

1445808cc4d240b7d63bf051525ef43f.png

Electron arrangement of a neon atom.

But the situation is slightly more complicated than this. Within each energy level, the electrons move in orbitals. An orbital defines the spaces or regions where electrons move.

Definition: Atomic Orbital

An atomic orbital is the region in which an electron may be found around a single atom.

The first energy level contains only one s orbital, the second energy level contains one s orbital and three p orbitals and the third energy level contains one s orbital and three p orbitals (as well as five d orbitals). Within each energy level, the s orbital is at a lower energy than the p orbitals. This arrangement is shown in the figure below.

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The positions of the first ten orbitals of an atom on an energy diagram.

Fact:

Each block in the figure above is able to hold two electrons. This means that the s orbital can hold two electrons, while the p orbital can hold a total of six electrons, two in each of the three blocks.

This diagram also helps us when we are working out the electron configuration of an element. The electron configuration of an element is the arrangement of the electrons in the shells and subshells. There are a few guidelines for working out the electron configuration. These are:

  • Each orbital can only hold two electrons. Electrons that occur together in an orbital are called an electron pair.

  • An electron will always try to enter an orbital with the lowest possible energy.

  • An electron will occupy an orbital on its own, rather than share an orbital with another electron. An electron would also rather occupy a lower energy orbital with another electron, before occupying a higher energy orbital. In other words, within one energy level, electrons will fill an s orbital before starting to fill p orbitals.

  • The s subshell can hold 2 electrons

  • The p subshell can hold 6 electrons

The way that the electrons are arranged in an atom is called its electron configuration.

Tip:

When there are two electrons in an orbital, the electrons are called an electron pair. If the orbital only has one electron, this electron is said to be an unpaired electron. Electron pairs are shown with arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Definition: Electron Configuration

Electron configuration is the arrangement of electrons in an atom, molecule or other physical structure.

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