Atoms and Isotopes: Pre-university Level

1 Conversation

The atom is the smallest part of an element that can exist on its own. We can see atoms using powerful and modern microscopes but this is a recent development. We can’t as yet see inside of an atom but experimental evidence has given us models of an atom. Some are better than others!

The accepted model is composed of 3 sub atomic particles called protons, neutrons and electrons.

ParticleChargeRelative mass

The mass of a proton and a neutron is accepted as 1. The mass of an electron is negligible and is therefore ignored.

The protons and neutrons are contained in the nucleus but the electrons orbit the nucleus in shells or orbitals. The nucleus is tiny but extremely dense as most of the atomic matter is contained within it. Most of the atom though is empty space.

There are over 100 known elements, 91 of which occur naturally, all displayed within the periodic table. Each element is distinguished from any other element by the number of protons in the nucleus. Each atom of a particular element has the same number of protons in the nucleus. For example all atoms of carbon contain 12 protons. This is known as the atomic number and given the symbol z. Atoms are neutral, which means it must contain the same number of positive and negative charges and, therefore, the same number of electrons and protons. Therefore the proton number can also tell you the number of electrons orbiting a neutral atom. Note: this is NOT the same for ions. Ions are atoms which have lost or gained one or more electrons, thus giving them a charge value. Molecules made up of mixtures of metals and non-metals use this to create bonds based on the fact that opposing charges attract one another. This is known as ionic bonding. A well known example of this form of molecule is table salt, sodium chloride, molecular formula NaCl. In this molecule the sodium atom gives a spare electron to the chlorine atom producing a sodium ion with a +1 charge and a chloride ion with a -1 charge.


Like charges will repel each other so the nucleus of an atom is not made solely of positive charges. It also contains neutral neutrons which act as a kind of glue keeping the nucleus together. Unlike the protons the number of neutrons in a nucleus can vary. The different versions of an element are called isotopes. The number of protons stays constant so they are still atoms of the same element. The mass number of an element tells you how many protons and neutrons there are in a nucleus. Therefore different isotopes will have different mass numbers.

Carbon has 3 isotopes – 12C, 13C, 14C. The mass number changes because the number of neutrons changes but the proton number remains at 6 – if it wasn’t 6 it wouldn’t be carbon! Normally we write the mass number like above but don’t bother with the proton number (so not like in the table) as it doesn’t change.

Atomic mass

If you look at the mass numbers of elements in the periodic table you will see that the mass number of some elements is a decimal – how can you have part of a neutron?! The mass numbers given in a periodic table take into account all the isotopes of the element and is based on the relative abundance of them.

The atom has an insufficient mass to be weighed in the ordinary way. If you placed a single atom on a balance it wouldn't register any form of change, so relative masses have to compared between elements. All scientists compare against carbon-12 so it is known as the international standard measurement of atomic mass. The mass of an atom of carbon-12 is exactly 12 unified atomic mass units (u) therefore 1 unified atomic mass unit is exactly 1/12 the mass of 1 atom of carbon-12. Therefore:

Relative isotopic mass is the mass of an atom of an isotope compared with 1/12 the mass of an atom of carbon-12.

Generally in science we ignore the contribution of the electrons and we take the mass of a proton and a neutron as 1u. Relative isotopic mass is then simple: it is the mass number of the isotope. So 16O has a relative isotopic mass of 16.
Most elements consist of a mixture of isotopes which have different mass numbers. To find the relative atomic mass we must find the weighted average mass of the isotopes present from the natural abundance of the isotopes and the relative isotopic masses.

Relative atomic mass, Ar, is the weighted average mass of an atom of an element compared with 1/12 of the mass of an atom of carbon-12.

Using this theory we can easily calculate the relative atomic mass of an element.

Molar Mass

Associated with Relative Atomic Mass is the idea of a mole. 1 mole contains the same number of atoms as are found in 12g of pure Carbon-12. The number of atoms in a mole of a substance is known as Avogadro’s Number, which has the value of 6.022x1023. Molecules can also be referred to in terms of moles. One mole of water has a molar mass of 16+1+1=18g using the most abundant isotopes of each element.

Measuring relative atomic mass

A relative atomic mass can be measured using a mass spectrometer.

  1. The sample is placed into the mass spectromter and vaporised.
  2. The sample is bombarded with electrons which knock other electrons out of their orbits, forming positive ions
  3. The positive ions are accelerated using an electric field
  4. The positive ions are deflected by a magnetic field
  5. The ions are detected to produce a mass spectrum.

Ions of lighter isotopes will be deflected more than ions of heavier ones. Therefore the mass spectrum can be used to identify the masses of different isotopes.

Molecules and atomic bonding

A molecule, also known as a compound, is formed from two or more atoms bonded to one another in one of three ways: ionic, covalent and metallic.

Ionic bonding occurs between non-metal atoms and metal atoms. The metal atom gives away electrons to the non-metal atom forming a positive metal ion and a negative non-metal ion, which are then attracted to one another. This forms giant lattice structures as each ion attracts others on all sides.

Covalent bonding occurs between two or more non-metal atoms, with electrons from each being 'shared' between both atoms. This can lead to simple molecules like water, but it can also create giant lattices like diamond where each carbon atom is attached to four others.

Metallic bonding occurs, as the name suggests between metal atoms, with electrons being separated from the atoms creating positive ions held together by a 'sea' of electrons.

Relative molecular mass

Relative molecular mass is the combination of the atomic masses of a whole compound.

Relative molecular mass, Mr, is the weighted average mass of a molecule of a compound compared with 1/12 the mass of an atom of carbon-12

The problem with relative molecular mass is for ionic compounds such as NaCl (sodium chloride or table salt) and giant covalent structures such as SiO2 the molecule is actually comprised of tens or hundreds of atoms bonded together so calculating the molecular mass is complicated. SiO2, also known as silicon dioxide or, to give it is common name, quartz is one of the most well known form of giant lattice molecule. Another molecule of this type is diamond which is a giant lattice formed entirely of carbon.

Relative formula mass

This is the addition of the relative atomic masses for all the atoms contained in the formula. This is not dependent on the number of molecules but on the formula. For giant ionic compounds such as SiO2 the relative molecular mass is the addition of 1 silicon atom and 2 oxygen atoms.

Relative formula mass is the average mass of the formula unit of a compound compared with 1/12 the mass of an atom of carbon-12

For more information on atoms and isotopes, you may find it useful to check the article on The Periodic Table

Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Currently in:


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more