Tutorial 1.

1 — Basics of Atomic Theory

Slide 1
This module provides an overview of the basic concepts of atomic structure and theory. It is
intended to provide a background for the theory of radioactive decay and nomenclature used in
the field of nuclear and radiochemistry. For more detailed descriptions and concepts, a text on
basic chemistry or physics should be consulted.

Slide 2. Learning Objectives
At the end of this module you should be able to:

• Explain the basic structure of an atom by describing the location, mass and charge of
protons, neutrons, and electrons, and describe the concept of electron orbitals.
• Define the terms “atom,” “element,” “atomic number,” and “mass number.”
• Discuss the relationship between valence electrons, electronegativity, ionic bonding
and covalent bonding.
• Calculate the mass of each stable isotope in a mixture based on its molecular weight
and its isotopic abundance.

Some of the key concepts presented in this module are:

• An atom consists of a central nucleus (containing protons and neutrons) surrounded by
electrons.
• Each electron shell is a different energy level.
• For a given element, the atomic number of an element is always the same.
• Isotopes are different forms of a single element and cannot be chemically separated.
• Stable isotopes of an element, on average, occur in fixed ratios in the environment.

Slide 3. Atoms and Elements
An element is matter that is made up entirely of one type of atom. An element has unique
physical and chemical characteristics. Examples of these characteristics would be the melting
and boiling point of an element. If we were to examine pure oxygen, we would find that it is a
gas at room temperature and has a low boiling point. One of its chemical characteristics is that
it will react with metals to form compounds called oxides.

In comparison, lead is a solid at room temperature, has a high boiling point. Lead doesn’t react
easily with other metals but will react with oxygen and elements like chlorine.

If we were to take one gram of lead, and divide it in half, each half would still retain the
chemical and physical properties of the original mass of material. If we continued this
subdividing of the lead mass we would finally end up with something that could no longer be
subdivided but would still retain the chemical and physical properties of the original mass of
lead. This something is called an atom. An atom is the smallest part of matter that cannot be
further subdivided but will still have all the chemical and physical properties of the entire mass
of original material. Every atom has three fundamental components; electrons, protons and
1
neutrons. When something is in its elemental state it has an equal number of protons and
electrons, and a specific number of neutrons that allow it to be energetically stable.

Slide 4. Structure of the Atom – The Nucleus
An atom has two distinct regions. One region is the nucleus and it is at the core or center of the
atom. The nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons. Protons have a +1 charge and neutrons
have zero charge. The other region of the atom is space outside the nucleus, but under the
attractive force of the protons within the nucleus. This is the area occupied electrons. Each
electron has a charge of -1.

Scientific investigators of the structure of the atom discovered through experimentation that
the size of the nucleus is about 1×10
−15
meters. In contrast the region of travel for electrons is
about 1×10
−10
meters. This means that the bulk of matter is tied up in a relatively small volume
occupied by the nucleus.

The stability of the nucleus is dependent upon the ratio of protons to neutrons. These two
particles are also known as nucleons, and inside the nucleus these two particles interchange
what is referred to as virtual forces. If we look at the chart of the nuclides we will see that for
elements of low atomic number have neutron-to-proton ratios of 1:1. As we increase in atomic
number to uranium the ratio of neutrons to protons becomes ~1.56:1 for the longest lived
radionuclides.

Slide 5. Structure of the Atom – The Electrons
We noted earlier that for a material in its elemental state that the number of protons and
electrons are equal. This means that the overall charge on an atom is zero.

The mass of a proton and a neutron are approximately the same. However, the mass of an
electron is about 1/1,800
th
that of a proton.

The original picture of an atom described the electrons circulating around the nucleus in
different energy levels called “shells”. This picture however only provides information about
the average distance from the nucleus of electrons in these different shells. Electrons actually
move across the nuclear diameter from one side to the other, but they don’t enter the nucleus.
The distance that an electron travels outside the nucleus is about 1×10
−10
meters while the
nuclear diameter is only about 1×10
−15
meters. It is similar to taking a plane trip from Boston
to San Francisco and passing over Omaha; you go past Omaha but you never are in it.

Electrons like to be in pairs. The volume of space designated for pairs of electrons is referred
to as an orbital. An orbital is a sub-grouping of the electron shells and as the shells are more
distant from the nucleus, the greater number of different types of orbitals can be
accommodated. An orbital can contain zero, one or two electrons. These orbitals have different
shapes based on their distance from the nucleus.

Slide 6. Electron Configuration – Cloud Model
2
The figure on the right shows one way of depicting the region of space occupied by certain
orbitals. The electron at any instant will only occupy one point in this region, but this defines
the limits of its travel.
Electrons can transition from one orbital to another, but only if the orbital to which it is
traveling is vacant or half full. In order for a bound electron to go from a bound state to an
empty or half full orbital, energy is required.

Slide 7. Electron Configuration – Shell Model
Every orbital shell is a different energy level. The outermost electrons, called valence
electrons, are the weakest held because they are furthest from the nucleus as well as being
shielded from the positive charge on the nucleus by other, lower energy electrons. Shown here
is the electronic orbital structure of calcium. Any of these electrons can be promoted to a
higher energy level by transfer of energy that corresponds to the exact transition energy.
However the outer electrons cannot transition to lower energy levels unless a lower energy is
somehow vacated.

Slide 8. Atoms and Symbols
A standard nomenclature using specific symbols and abbreviations has been developed to
describe the chemical shorthand used in equations. “Z” is used to designate atomic number, A
is used to represent the mass number which is the proton number plus the neutron number in
its nucleus. Elemental abbreviations are used as in the periodic table of the elements. The first
letter of an elemental symbol is always capitalized while the second letter if present is always
lower case.

For the example shown, the symbol U is used for uranium, the upper left superscript is the
mass number, and the lower left subscript is the atomic number.

Slide 9. The Periodic Table of the Elements
Each column in the periodic table represents elements that have similar electronic structure,
and thus similar chemical properties. In each box there is a symbol representing one element. It
also has the electronic structure of the element in its zero valence state and the atomic mass of
each element which is the weighted sum of all the individual stable isotope masses.

Slide 10. Ions and Isotopes
If an element loses or gains one or more electrons, it becomes an ion. This will change its
chemical reactivity, but it is always the same element.

Within the nucleus the ratio of neutron to protons determines the elements stability. Some
elements can have atoms that have different numbers of neutrons and still be stable. Oxygen
for example has three different stable atom types with numbers of neutrons of 8, 9, and 10, but
all three have the same number of protons, 8. These three different atoms types are referred to
as isotopes because their proton number is the same but their neutron number is different.
However, any oxygen atom whether stable or radioactive is still an isotope of oxygen. Thus
14
O is radioactive and has a short half-life, but is still an isotope of oxygen.
What about nuclei that have the same number of neutrons but different numbers of protons?
These atoms are referred to as isotones – the same neutron number.
3

The last possible combination is when the mass number A, the sum of protons and neutrons, is
the same. These atoms are called isobars, and always have different chemical properties.
Slide 11. Ions and Electron Shells
If one atom has a stronger draw on an electron than another, two ions are formed with opposite
charges. The atom that gains the electron is referred to as an anion as it is attracted to an anode
in an electric field. The other ion is a cation as it is attracted to the cathode in an electric field.
All solutions must be electrically neutral – that is, the total number of cation charges must also
be the total number of anion charges.

Another fact regarding atoms is that there are certain numbers of electrons which provide
certain stability to ions or atoms. Any time an atom can achieve either 2, 6, 8, or 14 electrons
in its outermost shell, it will either lose or gain electrons to do that. Thus if an atom has 7
electrons in its outer shell it is more likely to gain an electron to form a group of eight, and
become an anion. Conversely an atom with one electron in its outer shell is likely to lose one
electron and become a cation.

The exercise on this slide asks which atom is most likely to lose electrons to reach stability.

Slide 12. Test yourself Exercise: Solution 1
Fluorine is the most electronegative atom in the periodic table. If it is to combine with one
calcium atom, pulling away only one electron would complete fluorine’s outer shell of eight
electrons, a stable configuration. Calcium however still has one electron beyond a group of
eight. Thus if one other fluorine combines with calcium all three atoms would now have an
octet of electrons and complete outer shells. Fluorine becomes an anion, and calcium becomes
a cation. Therefore the most stable chemical configuration for calcium and fluorine is one
calcium ion and two fluorine ions.

Slide 13. Electronegativity and Ion Formation
The ability of an atom to draw in an electron is referred to as electronegativity. The scale that
measures electronegativity is relative going from about 1 to about 4. Fluorine has the highest
electronegativity of all elements. This means that when it combines with other elements it will
always draw electrons away from the other elements.

The figure on this slide depicts the combination of hydrogen and fluorine. Since fluorine has a
much higher electronegativity it draws one of the hydrogen electrons closer to it a large portion
of the time allowing an ionic bond to form between the hydrogen and the fluorine.

Slide 14. Covalent Bonding
When two atoms are very close in electronegativity value, they share the electrons more
equally. In the example shown here one carbon combines with four hydrogen atoms to form
methane. The two electronegativity values are within 0.3 units and the bond between these
atoms is made by sharing the electrons almost equally. This is considered a covalent bond.

Slide 15. Isotopes
4
As we stated earlier, two atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of
neutrons are called isotopes. Specific examples are shown here. An element will have many
different isotopes, however not all of them will be stable. For light elements with Z values of
about 1 to 20, the atom is more likely to be stable if the ratio of N to Z is 1:1. As we go
towards higher Z values the ration of N to Z will increase in order to maintain the atoms
stability. Any atom above atomic number 83 is radioactive and no matter how many neutrons
the atom has it will still be radioactive.

Slide 16. Fractional Abundance
An element that has more than one stable isotope will not have the same amount of each one.
Each isotope will have a fractional abundance in nature that is the amount of a particular
isotope compared to the total stable atoms of that element. Radioactive elements for stable
isotopes may contribute to the fractional abundance if their half-lives are very long. For
example
40
K has a half-life of 1.2×10
9
years and is counted in the abundance for total
potassium. Its abundance is 0.0117%. So even though it is radioactive its atoms undergo decay
so slowly that most that were formed when the earth was formed are still here. The element
thorium has only one very long lived isotope,
232
Th with a half-life of 14 billion years. Since
most of it is still found in the environment and has not decayed away, it has a natural
abundance of 100%.

Slide 17. Moles and Isotopic Abundance
The number of atoms that are equal in weight to the atomic mass of an element is referred to as
a mole. An analogy would be the number of eggs in one dozen is twelve. One mole of
12
C has
6.02×10
23
atoms. A mole of eggs would be 6.02×10
23
eggs.
From that concept and knowing the exact atomic weight of an element we can determine the
mass of an individual atom, proton, electron, or neutron. Another unit that is based on this
concept is the atomic mass unit, or amu. One amu has a mass of 1.66×10
−24
g.

The exercise to the right tests you comprehension of this concept. Try to answer these
questions before going on to the next slide.

Slide 18. Test Yourself Exercise 2: Answers
To calculate the total mass present multiply the concentration by the total volume. Then
multiply the mass by the fractional abundance of
54
Fe.

Next use Avogadro’s number, the exact atomic mass of
54
Fe and the mass of
54
Fe to calculate
the number of atoms.

5
6
Side 19. Nucleon Masses and the Mass Defect
If we compare the sum of the nucleon masses in the nucleus to the actual measured mass of the
nucleus we will find that the actual mass is less. This difference is called the mass defect. In
order for all the nucleons to be held together in the nucleus, some mass is surrendered creating
energy that binds the nucleons together. Using the Einstein equation, E = mc
2
, and substituting
the mass of one amu, the speed of light and appropriate conversion factors we get 931 MeV
per amu. If the mass defect is multiplied by 931 MeV/amu the result is the total nuclear
binding energy.

Slide 20. Conclusion
You should now be able to describe the location of the fundamental nuclear particles, the
proton neutron and electron in the atom. You should be able to differentiate between atoms
that are isotopes, isobars and isotones. You should be able to identify the terms cation, anion
and electronegativity.

Given a mass of an element you should be able to convert this mass to a number of atoms.

These concepts are all used in subsequent modules of this course.