Atomic Mass And Atomic Number


Overview of Atomic Structure

The mass number of an atom is its total number of protons and neutrons. Atoms of different elements usually have different mass numbers, but they can be the same. For example, the mass number of. Each atom has a charged sub-structure consisting of a nucleus, which is made of protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons. The number of protons and the mass number of an atom define the type of atom. Atoms of the same element with different mass numbers are called isotopes.

Atoms are made up of particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are responsible for the mass and charge of atoms.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the electronic and structural properties of an atom

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An atom is composed of two regions: the nucleus, which is in the center of the atom and contains protons and neutrons, and the outer region of the atom, which holds its electrons in orbit around the nucleus.
  • Protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass, about 1.67 × 10-24 grams, which scientists define as one atomic mass unit (amu) or one Dalton.
  • Each electron has a negative charge (-1) equal to the positive charge of a proton (+1).
  • Neutrons are uncharged particles found within the nucleus.

Key Terms

  • atom: The smallest possible amount of matter which still retains its identity as a chemical element, consisting of a nucleus surrounded by electrons.
  • proton: Positively charged subatomic particle forming part of the nucleus of an atom and determining the atomic number of an element. It weighs 1 amu.
  • neutron: A subatomic particle forming part of the nucleus of an atom. It has no charge. It is equal in mass to a proton or it weighs 1 amu.

An atom is the smallest unit of matter that retains all of the chemical properties of an element. Atoms combine to form molecules, which then interact to form solids, gases, or liquids. For example, water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms that have combined to form water molecules. Many biological processes are devoted to breaking down molecules into their component atoms so they can be reassembled into a more useful molecule.

Atomic Particles

Atoms consist of three basic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons. The nucleus (center) of the atom contains the protons (positively charged) and the neutrons (no charge). The outermost regions of the atom are called electron shells and contain the electrons (negatively charged). Atoms have different properties based on the arrangement and number of their basic particles.

Atomic Mass And Atomic Number

The hydrogen atom (H) contains only one proton, one electron, and no neutrons. This can be determined using the atomic number and the mass number of the element (see the concept on atomic numbers and mass numbers).

Structure of an atom: 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.

Atomic Mass

Protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass, about 1.67 × 10-24 grams. Scientists define this amount of mass as one atomic mass unit (amu) or one Dalton. Although similar in mass, protons are positively charged, while neutrons have no charge. Therefore, the number of neutrons in an atom contributes significantly to its mass, but not to its charge.

Electrons are much smaller in mass than protons, weighing only 9.11 × 10-28 grams, or about 1/1800 of an atomic mass unit. Therefore, they do not contribute much to an element’s overall atomic mass. When considering atomic mass, it is customary to ignore the mass of any electrons and calculate the atom’s mass based on the number of protons and neutrons alone.

Electrons contribute greatly to the atom’s charge, as each electron has a negative charge equal to the positive charge of a proton. Scientists define these charges as “+1” and “-1. ” In an uncharged, neutral atom, the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus is equal to the number of protons inside the nucleus. In these atoms, the positive and negative charges cancel each other out, leading to an atom with no net charge.


Protons, neutrons, and electrons: Both protons and neutrons have a mass of 1 amu and are found in the nucleus. The knives out trailer. However, protons have a charge of +1, and neutrons are uncharged. Electrons have a mass of approximately 0 amu, orbit the nucleus, and have a charge of -1.

Exploring Electron Properties: Compare the behavior of electrons to that of other charged particles to discover properties of electrons such as charge and mass.

Volume of Atoms

Accounting for the sizes of protons, neutrons, and electrons, most of the volume of an atom—greater than 99 percent—is, in fact, empty space. Despite all this empty space, solid objects do not just pass through one another. The electrons that surround all atoms are negatively charged and cause atoms to repel one another, preventing atoms from occupying the same space. These intermolecular forces prevent you from falling through an object like your chair.

Interactive: 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!

Atomic Number and Mass Number

The atomic number is the number of protons in an element, while the mass number is the number of protons plus the number of neutrons.

Learning Objectives

Determine the relationship between the mass number of an atom, its atomic number, its atomic mass, and its number of subatomic particles

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Neutral atoms of each element contain an equal number of protons and electrons.
  • The number of protons determines an element’s atomic number and is used to distinguish one element from another.
  • The number of neutrons is variable, resulting in isotopes, which are different forms of the same atom that vary only in the number of neutrons they possess.
  • Together, the number of protons and the number of neutrons determine an element’s mass number.
  • Since an element’s isotopes have slightly different mass numbers, the atomic mass is calculated by obtaining the mean of the mass numbers for its isotopes.

Key Terms

  • mass number: The sum of the number of protons and the number of neutrons in an atom.
  • atomic number: The number of protons in an atom.
  • atomic mass: The average mass of an atom, taking into account all its naturally occurring isotopes.

Atomic Number

Neutral atoms of an element contain an equal number of protons and electrons. The number of protons determines an element’s atomic number (Z) and distinguishes one element from another. For example, carbon’s atomic number (Z) is 6 because it has 6 protons. The number of neutrons can vary to produce isotopes, which are atoms of the same element that have different numbers of neutrons. The number of electrons can also be different in atoms of the same element, thus producing ions (charged atoms). For instance, iron, Fe, can exist in its neutral state, or in the +2 and +3 ionic states.

Mass Number

An element’s mass number (A) is the sum of the number of protons and the number of neutrons. The small contribution of mass from electrons is disregarded in calculating the mass number. This approximation of mass can be used to easily calculate how many neutrons an element has by simply subtracting the number of protons from the mass number. Protons and neutrons both weigh about one atomic mass unit or amu. Isotopes of the same element will have the same atomic number but different mass numbers.

Atomic number, chemical symbol, and mass number: Carbon has an atomic number of six, and two stable isotopes with mass numbers of twelve and thirteen, respectively. Its average atomic mass is 12.11.

Scientists determine the atomic mass by calculating the mean of the mass numbers for its naturally-occurring isotopes. Often, the resulting number contains a decimal. For example, the atomic mass of chlorine (Cl) is 35.45 amu because chlorine is composed of several isotopes, some (the majority) with an atomic mass of 35 amu (17 protons and 18 neutrons) and some with an atomic mass of 37 amu (17 protons and 20 neutrons).

Given an atomic number (Z) and mass number (A), you can find the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in a neutral atom. For example, a lithium atom (Z=3, A=7 amu) contains three protons (found from Z), three electrons (as the number of protons is equal to the number of electrons in an atom), and four neutrons (7 – 3 = 4).


Isotopes are various forms of an element that have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the properties of isotopes and their use in radiometric dating

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Isotopes are atoms of the same element that contain an identical number of protons, but a different number of neutrons.
  • Despite having different numbers of neutrons, isotopes of the same element have very similar physical properties.
  • Some isotopes are unstable and will undergo radioactive decay to become other elements.
  • The predictable half-life of different decaying isotopes allows scientists to date material based on its isotopic composition, such as with Carbon-14 dating.

Key Terms

  • isotope: Any of two or more forms of an element where the atoms have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons within their nuclei.
  • half-life: The time it takes for half of the original concentration of an isotope to decay back to its more stable form.
  • radioactive isotopes: an atom with an unstable nucleus, characterized by excess energy available that undergoes radioactive decay and creates most commonly gamma rays, alpha or beta particles.
  • radiocarbon dating: Determining the age of an object by comparing the ratio of the 14C concentration found in it to the amount of 14C in the atmosphere.

What is an Isotope?

Isotopes are various forms of an element that have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Some elements, such as carbon, potassium, and uranium, have multiple naturally-occurring isotopes. Isotopes are defined first by their element and then by the sum of the protons and neutrons present.

  • Carbon-12 (or 12C) contains six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons; therefore, it has a mass number of 12 amu (six protons and six neutrons).
  • Carbon-14 (or 14C) contains six protons, eight neutrons, and six electrons; its atomic mass is 14 amu (six protons and eight neutrons).

While the mass of individual isotopes is different, their physical and chemical properties remain mostly unchanged.

Isotopes do differ in their stability. Carbon-12 (12C) is the most abundant of the carbon isotopes, accounting for 98.89% of carbon on Earth. Carbon-14 (14C) is unstable and only occurs in trace amounts. Unstable isotopes most commonly emit alpha particles (He2+) and electrons. Neutrons, protons, and positrons can also be emitted and electrons can be captured to attain a more stable atomic configuration (lower level of potential energy ) through a process called radioactive decay. The new atoms created may be in a high energy state and emit gamma rays which lowers the energy but alone does not change the atom into another isotope. These atoms are called radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes.

Radiocarbon Dating

Carbon is normally present in the atmosphere in the form of gaseous compounds like carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon-14 (14C) is a naturally-occurring radioisotope that is created from atmospheric 14N (nitrogen) by the addition of a neutron and the loss of a proton, which is caused by cosmic rays. This is a continuous process so more 14C is always being created in the atmosphere. Once produced, the 14C often combines with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide produced in this way diffuses in the atmosphere, is dissolved in the ocean, and is incorporated by plants via photosynthesis. Animals eat the plants and, ultimately, the radiocarbon is distributed throughout the biosphere.

Atomic Mass And Atomic Number Difference

In living organisms, the relative amount of 14C in their body is approximately equal to the concentration of 14C in the atmosphere. When an organism dies, it is no longer ingesting 14C, so the ratio between 14C and 12C will decline as 14C gradually decays back to 14N. This slow process, which is called beta decay, releases energy through the emission of electrons from the nucleus or positrons.

After approximately 5,730 years, half of the starting concentration of 14C will have been converted back to 14N. This is referred to as its half-life, or the time it takes for half of the original concentration of an isotope to decay back to its more stable form. Because the half-life of 14C is long, it is used to date formerly-living objects such as old bones or wood. Comparing the ratio of the 14C concentration found in an object to the amount of 14C in the atmosphere, the amount of the isotope that has not yet decayed can be determined. On the basis of this amount, the age of the material can be accurately calculated, as long as the material is believed to be less than 50,000 years old. This technique is called radiocarbon dating, or carbon dating for short.

Application of carbon dating: The age of carbon-containing remains less than 50,000 years old, such as this pygmy mammoth, can be determined using carbon dating.

Other elements have isotopes with different half lives. For example, 40K (potassium-40) has a half-life of 1.25 billion years, and 235U (uranium-235) has a half-life of about 700 million years. Scientists often use these other radioactive elements to date objects that are older than 50,000 years (the limit of carbon dating). Through the use of radiometric dating, scientists can study the age of fossils or other remains of extinct organisms.

An explanation of the superscripts and subscripts seen in atomic number notation. Atomic number is the number of protons, and therefore also the total positive charge, in the atomic nucleus.
The Rutherford–Bohr model of the hydrogen atom (Z = 1) or a hydrogen-like ion (Z > 1). In this model it is an essential feature that the photon energy (or frequency) of the electromagnetic radiation emitted (shown) when an electron jumps from one orbital to another be proportional to the mathematical square of atomic charge (Z2). Experimental measurement by Henry Moseley of this radiation for many elements (from Z = 13 to 92) showed the results as predicted by Bohr. Both the concept of atomic number and the Bohr model were thereby given scientific credence.

The atomic number or proton number (symbol Z) of a chemical element is the number of protons found in the nucleus of every atom of that element. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element. It is identical to the charge number of the nucleus. In an uncharged atom, the atomic number is also equal to the number of electrons.

The sum of the atomic number Z and the number of neutronsN gives the mass numberA of an atom. Since protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass (and the mass of the electrons is negligible for many purposes) and the mass defect of nucleon binding is always small compared to the nucleon mass, the atomic mass of any atom, when expressed in unified atomic mass units (making a quantity called the 'relative isotopic mass'), is within 1% of the whole number A.

Atoms with the same atomic number but different neutron numbers, and hence different mass numbers, are known as isotopes. A little more than three-quarters of naturally occurring elements exist as a mixture of isotopes (see monoisotopic elements), and the average isotopic mass of an isotopic mixture for an element (called the relative atomic mass) in a defined environment on Earth, determines the element's standard atomic weight. Historically, it was these atomic weights of elements (in comparison to hydrogen) that were the quantities measurable by chemists in the 19th century.

Atomic Mass And Atomic Number Definition

The conventional symbol Z comes from the German word Zahl meaning number, which, before the modern synthesis of ideas from chemistry and physics, merely denoted an element's numerical place in the periodic table, whose order is approximately, but not completely, consistent with the order of the elements by atomic weights. Only after 1915, with the suggestion and evidence that this Z number was also the nuclear charge and a physical characteristic of atoms, did the word Atomzahl (and its English equivalent atomic number) come into common use in this context.


The periodic table and a natural number for each element[edit]

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table.

Loosely speaking, the existence or construction of a periodic table of elements creates an ordering of the elements, and so they can be numbered in order.

Dmitri Mendeleev claimed that he arranged his first periodic tables (first published on March 6, 1869) in order of atomic weight ('Atomgewicht').[1] However, in consideration of the elements' observed chemical properties, he changed the order slightly and placed tellurium (atomic weight 127.6) ahead of iodine (atomic weight 126.9).[1][2] This placement is consistent with the modern practice of ordering the elements by proton number, Z, but that number was not known or suspected at the time.

Niels Bohr, creator of the Bohr model.

A simple numbering based on periodic table position was never entirely satisfactory, however. Besides the case of iodine and tellurium, later several other pairs of elements (such as argon and potassium, cobalt and nickel) were known to have nearly identical or reversed atomic weights, thus requiring their placement in the periodic table to be determined by their chemical properties. However the gradual identification of more and more chemically similar lanthanide elements, whose atomic number was not obvious, led to inconsistency and uncertainty in the periodic numbering of elements at least from lutetium (element 71) onward (hafnium was not known at this time).

The Rutherford-Bohr model and van den Broek[edit]

In 1911, Ernest Rutherford gave a model of the atom in which a central nucleus held most of the atom's mass and a positive charge which, in units of the electron's charge, was to be approximately equal to half of the atom's atomic weight, expressed in numbers of hydrogen atoms. This central charge would thus be approximately half the atomic weight (though it was almost 25% different from the atomic number of gold (Z = 79, A = 197), the single element from which Rutherford made his guess). Nevertheless, in spite of Rutherford's estimation that gold had a central charge of about 100 (but was element Z = 79 on the periodic table), a month after Rutherford's paper appeared, Antonius van den Broek first formally suggested that the central charge and number of electrons in an atom was exactly equal to its place in the periodic table (also known as element number, atomic number, and symbolized Z). This proved eventually to be the case.

Moseley's 1913 experiment[edit]

Henry Moseley in his lab.

The experimental position improved dramatically after research by Henry Moseley in 1913.[3] Moseley, after discussions with Bohr who was at the same lab (and who had used Van den Broek's hypothesis in his Bohr model of the atom), decided to test Van den Broek's and Bohr's hypothesis directly, by seeing if spectral lines emitted from excited atoms fitted the Bohr theory's postulation that the frequency of the spectral lines be proportional to the square of Z.

To do this, Moseley measured the wavelengths of the innermost photon transitions (K and L lines) produced by the elements from aluminum (Z = 13) to gold (Z = 79) used as a series of movable anodic targets inside an x-ray tube.[4] The square root of the frequency of these photons (x-rays) increased from one target to the next in an arithmetic progression. This led to the conclusion (Moseley's law) that the atomic number does closely correspond (with an offset of one unit for K-lines, in Moseley's work) to the calculated electric charge of the nucleus, i.e. the element number Z. Among other things, Moseley demonstrated that the lanthanide series (from lanthanum to lutetium inclusive) must have 15 members—no fewer and no more—which was far from obvious from known chemistry at that time.

Missing elements[edit]

After Moseley's death in 1915, the atomic numbers of all known elements from hydrogen to uranium (Z = 92) were examined by his method. There were seven elements (with Z < 92) which were not found and therefore identified as still undiscovered, corresponding to atomic numbers 43, 61, 72, 75, 85, 87 and 91.[5] From 1918 to 1947, all seven of these missing elements were discovered.[6] By this time, the first four transuranium elements had also been discovered, so that the periodic table was complete with no gaps as far as curium (Z = 96).

The proton and the idea of nuclear electrons[edit]

Atomic Mass Versus Atomic Number

In 1915, the reason for nuclear charge being quantized in units of Z, which were now recognized to be the same as the element number, was not understood. An old idea called Prout's hypothesis had postulated that the elements were all made of residues (or 'protyles') of the lightest element hydrogen, which in the Bohr-Rutherford model had a single electron and a nuclear charge of one. However, as early as 1907, Rutherford and Thomas Royds had shown that alpha particles, which had a charge of +2, were the nuclei of helium atoms, which had a mass four times that of hydrogen, not two times. If Prout's hypothesis were true, something had to be neutralizing some of the charge of the hydrogen nuclei present in the nuclei of heavier atoms.

Periodic Table Atomic Mass And Atomic Number

In 1917, Rutherford succeeded in generating hydrogen nuclei from a nuclear reaction between alpha particles and nitrogen gas,[7] and believed he had proven Prout's law. He called the new heavy nuclear particles protons in 1920 (alternate names being proutons and protyles). It had been immediately apparent from the work of Moseley that the nuclei of heavy atoms have more than twice as much mass as would be expected from their being made of hydrogen nuclei, and thus there was required a hypothesis for the neutralization of the extra protons presumed present in all heavy nuclei. A helium nucleus was presumed to be composed of four protons plus two 'nuclear electrons' (electrons bound inside the nucleus) to cancel two of the charges. At the other end of the periodic table, a nucleus of gold with a mass 197 times that of hydrogen was thought to contain 118 nuclear electrons in the nucleus to give it a residual charge of +79, consistent with its atomic number.

The discovery of the neutron makes Z the proton number[edit]

All consideration of nuclear electrons ended with James Chadwick's discovery of the neutron in 1932. An atom of gold now was seen as containing 118 neutrons rather than 118 nuclear electrons, and its positive charge now was realized to come entirely from a content of 79 protons. After 1932, therefore, an element's atomic number Z was also realized to be identical to the proton number of its nuclei.

The symbol of Z[edit]

The conventional symbol Z possibly comes from the German word Atomzahl (atomic number).[8] However, prior to 1915, the word Zahl (simply number) was used for an element's assigned number in the periodic table.

Chemical properties[edit]

Each element has a specific set of chemical properties as a consequence of the number of electrons present in the neutral atom, which is Z (the atomic number). The configuration of these electrons follows from the principles of quantum mechanics. The number of electrons in each element's electron shells, particularly the outermost valence shell, is the primary factor in determining its chemical bonding behavior. Hence, it is the atomic number alone that determines the chemical properties of an element; and it is for this reason that an element can be defined as consisting of any mixture of atoms with a given atomic number.

New elements[edit]

The quest for new elements is usually described using atomic numbers. As of 2021, all elements with atomic numbers 1 to 118 have been observed. Synthesis of new elements is accomplished by bombarding target atoms of heavy elements with ions, such that the sum of the atomic numbers of the target and ion elements equals the atomic number of the element being created. In general, the half-life of a nuclide becomes shorter as atomic number increases, though undiscovered nuclides with certain 'magic' numbers of protons and neutrons may have relatively longer half-lives and comprise an island of stability.

See also[edit]

Look up atomic number in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. ^ abThe Periodic Table of Elements, American Institute of Physics
  2. ^The Development of the Periodic Table, Royal Society of Chemistry
  3. ^Ordering the Elements in the Periodic Table, Royal Chemical Society
  4. ^Moseley, H.G.J. (1913). 'XCIII.The high-frequency spectra of the elements'. Philosophical Magazine. Series 6. 26 (156): 1024. doi:10.1080/14786441308635052. Archived from the original on 22 January 2010.
  5. ^Eric Scerri, A tale of seven elements, (Oxford University Press 2013) ISBN978-0-19-539131-2, p.47
  6. ^Scerri chaps. 3–9 (one chapter per element)
  7. ^Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand history online. (19 October 1937). Retrieved on 2011-01-26.
  8. ^Origin of symbol Z.
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