Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the structure and components of an atom

To understand how elements come together, we must first discuss the smallest component or building block of an element, the atom. An atom is the smallest unit of matter that retains all of the chemical properties of an element. 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 containing small amounts of other elements known as impurities. Gold atoms cannot be broken down into anything smaller while still retaining the properties of gold.

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.

Figure 1. 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.

All atoms contain protons, electrons, and neutrons (Figure 1). The only exception is hydrogen (H), which is made of one proton and one electron.

A proton is a positively charged particle that resides in the nucleus (the core of the atom) of an atom and has a mass of 1 and a charge of +1.

Neutrons, like protons, reside in the nucleus of an atom. They have a mass of 1 and no charge.

An electron is a negatively charged particle that travels in the space around the nucleus. In other words, it resides outside of the nucleus. It has a negligible mass and has a charge of –1.

The positive (protons) and negative (electrons) charges balance each other in a neutral atom, which has a net zero charge.

Because protons and neutrons each have a mass of 1, the mass of an atom is equal to the number of protons and neutrons of that atom. The number of electrons does not factor into the overall mass, because their mass is so small.

Build An Atom

Build an atom out of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and see how the element, charge, and mass change. Then play a game to test your ideas!

Try It


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