Important Differences between Elements and Atoms


An element is a fundamental substance that consists of only one type of atom. Each element is uniquely defined by its atomic number, which corresponds to the number of protons in the nucleus of its atoms. Elements cannot be broken down into simpler substances by chemical means. They are the building blocks of matter and are organized in the periodic table based on their atomic properties. Elements exhibit characteristic physical and chemical properties, including atomic mass, density, melting and boiling points, and reactivity. There are currently 118 known elements, ranging from hydrogen, the lightest, to oganesson, the heaviest. Elements combine to form compounds, giving rise to the incredible diversity of substances found in the universe.

Properties of elements

  • Atomic Number:

This is the unique identifier of an element, representing the number of protons in its nucleus. It determines the element’s chemical identity.

  • Atomic Mass:

The total mass of an atom, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. It is measured in atomic mass units (amu).

  • Electronic Configuration:

Describes how electrons are arranged in energy levels (shells) around the nucleus. It influences an element’s reactivity.

  • Physical State:

Elements can exist in various states at room temperature – solid, liquid, or gas.

  • Density:

The mass of an element per unit volume. It can vary widely among elements.

  • Melting and Boiling Points:

These temperatures indicate when an element changes its state from solid to liquid (melting) and from liquid to gas (boiling).

  • Electronegativity:

The ability of an atom to attract shared electrons in a covalent bond. It influences bond type and polarity.

  • Ionization Energy:

The energy required to remove an electron from an atom. High ionization energy indicates strong electron affinity.

  • Electron Affinity:

The energy change when an electron is added to an atom. It reflects the atom’s tendency to accept electrons.

  • Metallicity:

Elements are classified as metals, non-metals, or metalloids based on their physical and chemical properties.

  • Reactivity:

This property indicates how readily an element forms compounds with other elements. Noble gases are least reactive, while alkali metals are highly reactive.

  • Magnetic Properties:

Some elements exhibit magnetic behavior, influenced by their electron configurations.

  • Radioactivity:

Certain elements have unstable nuclei and undergo radioactive decay, emitting radiation.

  • Isotopes:

Elements may have different forms (isotopes) with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.

  • Allotropes:

Some elements can exist in different forms in the same physical state. For example, carbon can be found as graphite, diamond, and fullerene.

Classification of Elements

  1. Metals:
    • Properties: Generally solid at room temperature (except for mercury), lustrous, good conductors of heat and electricity, malleable, and ductile.
    • Examples: Iron (Fe), Copper (Cu), Gold (Au).
  2. Non-Metals:
    • Properties: Varied states at room temperature (can be solids, liquids, or gases), poor conductors of heat and electricity, often brittle.
    • Examples: Oxygen (O), Carbon (C), Nitrogen (N).
  3. Metalloids (Semimetals):

    • Properties: Have characteristics of both metals and non-metals. They are intermediate in terms of conductivity, and their properties can be adjusted by changing conditions.
    • Examples: Silicon (Si), Boron (B), Germanium (Ge).
  4. Noble Gases:

    • Properties: Gases at room temperature, highly stable and unreactive due to full valence electron shells.
    • Examples: Helium (He), Neon (Ne), Argon (Ar).
  5. Alkali Metals:

    • Properties: Very reactive metals, soft, low density, and have a single valence electron.
    • Examples: Lithium (Li), Sodium (Na), Potassium (K).
  6. Alkaline Earth Metals:

    • Properties: Reactive metals, harder and denser than alkali metals, two valence electrons.
    • Examples: Beryllium (Be), Magnesium (Mg), Calcium (Ca).
  7. Transition Metals:

    • Properties: Diverse properties, varying reactivity, form colorful compounds, and can have multiple oxidation states.
    • Examples: Iron (Fe), Copper (Cu), Nickel (Ni).
  8. Halogens:

    • Properties: Highly reactive non-metals, often form salts with metals, and have seven valence electrons.
    • Examples: Fluorine (F), Chlorine (Cl), Bromine (Br).
  9. Lanthanides:

    • Properties: Rare earth metals, generally similar properties, often used in industrial applications.
    • Examples: Cerium (Ce), Gadolinium (Gd), Lutetium (Lu).
  10. Actinides:

    • Properties: Radioactive metals, most are synthetic and not naturally occurring, some have practical applications.
    • Examples: Uranium (U), Plutonium (Pu), Curium (Cm).


An atom is the basic building block of matter, composed of subatomic particles. At its center lies a dense nucleus, containing positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. Electrons, negatively charged, orbit around the nucleus in defined energy levels, forming a cloud-like electron cloud. The nucleus contributes most of an atom’s mass, while electrons determine its chemical behavior. Atoms are extremely small, with sizes on the order of picometers. They combine to form molecules through chemical bonds, creating the vast diversity of substances in the universe. The number of protons, known as the atomic number, uniquely identifies each element. Understanding atoms is fundamental to chemistry and provides insight into the nature of all matter.

Atom Structure

  1. Protons (p+):
    • Found in the nucleus, which is the central, dense core of the atom.
    • Possess a positive charge (+1).
    • Determine the element’s identity based on their number (atomic number).
    • Each element has a unique number of protons.
  2. Neutrons (n):

    • Also located in the nucleus.
    • Electrically neutral, carrying no net charge (charge is 0).
    • Help stabilize the nucleus and contribute to the atom’s mass.
  3. Electrons (e-):

    • Orbit the nucleus in various energy levels or electron shells.
    • Have a negative charge (-1).
    • Involved in chemical reactions and bonding with other atoms.
    • Their behavior is described by quantum mechanics.

The electron shells are divided into energy levels, each with a specific maximum electron capacity:

  • The first energy level (n = 1) can hold up to 2 electrons.
  • The second energy level (n = 2) can hold up to 8 electrons.
  • The third energy level (n = 3) can hold up to 18 electrons, and so on.

Electrons in higher energy levels possess more energy and are farther from the nucleus.

The arrangement of electrons around the nucleus follows specific rules, including the Aufbau principle, Pauli exclusion principle, and Hund’s rule, collectively known as the electron configuration.

Atom Properties

  1. Atomic Number (Z):
    • Represents the number of protons in the nucleus.
    • Determines the element’s identity.
  2. Atomic Mass (or Atomic Weight):

Represents the average mass of all isotopes of an element, taking into account their relative abundances.

  1. Electron Configuration:

Describes the arrangement of electrons in energy levels (electron shells) around the nucleus.

  1. Electronegativity:

Indicates an atom’s ability to attract shared electrons in a chemical bond.

  1. Ionization Energy:

Energy required to remove an electron from an atom, forming a positively charged ion.

  1. Electron Affinity:

Energy change when an electron is added to a neutral atom to form a negative ion.

  1. Valence Electrons:

Electrons in the outermost energy level, which determine an atom’s chemical behavior.

  1. Isotopes:

    • Atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons.
    • Have the same atomic number but different atomic mass.
  2. Molar Mass:

    • Mass of one mole of atoms (in grams) of a particular element.
    • Numerically equal to the atomic mass in atomic mass units (amu).
  3. Reactivity:

    • Determined by the number and arrangement of electrons in the outermost energy level.
    • Atoms with incomplete outer shells tend to be more reactive.
  4. Melting and Boiling Points:

Depend on the strength of the forces holding atoms together in a substance.

  1. Density:

The mass of an atom per unit volume, influenced by atomic mass and arrangement.

  1. Atomic Radius:

The size of an atom, typically measured as the distance between the nucleus and the outermost electrons.

  1. Nuclear Charge:

The positive charge of the nucleus, which affects the attraction between electrons and the nucleus.

  1. Chemical Bonding:

Atoms combine through chemical bonds (ionic, covalent, etc.) to form molecules and compounds.

Important Differences between Elements and Atoms

Basis of Comparison Elements Atoms
Definition Fundamental substances composed of identical atoms Smallest unit of a chemical element
Composition Consists of only one type of atom Composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons
Chemical Properties Have distinct chemical properties Combine to form molecules and compounds
Examples Oxygen (O), Gold (Au), Carbon (C) Hydrogen atom (H), Oxygen atom (O)
Existence Naturally occurring or synthesized Always exist, make up elements
Structure Consist of identical atoms arranged in a specific pattern Composed of subatomic particles
Role in Compounds Combine to form compounds Combine with other atoms to form molecules
Mass Have a specific atomic mass (in atomic mass units) Have a mass determined by their protons, neutrons, and electrons
Charge Neutral or may have a specific charge if ionized Can be charged (ions) or neutral
Subatomic Particles Composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons Composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons
Isotopes Different isotopes of an element have varying numbers of neutrons Isotopes refer to variants of an element with different numbers of neutrons
Nuclear Reactions Involved in nuclear reactions Form the basis of nuclear reactions
Chemical Symbol Represented by a chemical symbol (e.g., O for oxygen) Not represented by a specific symbol
Electronegativity Do not have electronegativity values Atoms have electronegativity values
Form Molecules Do not form molecules on their own Combine to form molecules through chemical bonds

Important Similarities between Elements and Atoms

  • Fundamental Building Blocks:

Atoms are the basic units of matter, and elements are composed of identical atoms of a particular type.

  • Chemical Properties:

Elements and their constituent atoms have characteristic chemical properties that define their behavior in chemical reactions.

  • Existence in Nature:

Elements are naturally occurring substances, and atoms are the smallest units of an element that retain its chemical properties.

  • Electron Configuration:

Both elements and atoms have a specific arrangement of electrons in energy levels or shells around the nucleus.

  • Form Isotopes:

Elements can have different isotopes, which are variants of the element with different numbers of neutrons. Likewise, atoms can have isotopes.

  • Subatomic Particles:

Both elements and atoms are composed of subatomic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

  • Part of the Periodic Table:

Elements are organized in the periodic table based on their atomic number, which represents the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom.

  • Form Compounds:

Elements combine with other elements to form compounds through chemical reactions, where atoms share, gain, or lose electrons.

  • Electronegativity:

Both elements and atoms have electronegativity values, indicating their ability to attract electrons in a chemical bond.

  • Chemical Symbols:

Elements are represented by chemical symbols (e.g., H for hydrogen, O for oxygen), and each atom of that element bears the same symbol.

  • Role in Chemical Reactions:

Both elements and atoms are involved in chemical reactions, where bonds are formed or broken to create new substances.

  • Part of Matter:

Both elements and atoms are essential components of matter, and all matter is composed of various combinations of elements and atoms.

  • Diverse Properties:

Elements and their constituent atoms exhibit a wide range of physical and chemical properties, leading to the diversity of substances we encounter.

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