The lightest chemical elements are hydrogen and helium, both created by Big Bang nucleosynthesis during the first 20 minutes of the universe in a ratio of around 3:1 by mass (or 12:1 by number of atoms), along with tiny traces of the next two elements, lithium and beryllium. Almost all other elements found in nature were made by various natural methods of nucleosynthesis. On Earth, small amounts of new atoms are naturally produced in nucleogenic reactions, or in cosmogenic processes, such as cosmic ray spallation. New atoms are also naturally produced on Earth as radiogenic daughter isotopes of ongoing radioactive decay processes such as alpha decay, beta decay, spontaneous fission, cluster decay, and other rarer modes of decay.
Of the 94 naturally occurring elements, those with atomic numbers 1 through 82 each have at least one stable isotope (except for technetium, element 43 and promethium, element 61, which have no stable isotopes). Isotopes considered stable are those for which no radioactive decay has yet been observed. Elements with atomic numbers 83 through 94 are unstable to the point that radioactive decay of all isotopes can be detected. Some of these elements, notably bismuth (atomic number 83), thorium (atomic number 90), and uranium (atomic number 92), have one or more isotopes with half-lives long enough to survive as remnants of the explosive stellar nucleosynthesis that produced the heavy metals before the formation of our Solar System. At over 1.9×1019 years, over a billion times longer than the current estimated age of the universe, bismuth-209 (atomic number 83) has the longest known alpha decay half-life of any naturally occurring element, and is almost always considered on par with the 80 stable elements. The very heaviest elements (those beyond plutonium, element 94) undergo radioactive decay with half-lives so short that they are not found in nature and must be synthesized.
As of 2010, there are 118 known elements (in this context, "known" means observed well enough, even from just a few decay products, to have been differentiated from other elements). Of these 118 elements, 94 occur naturally on Earth. Six of these occur in extreme trace quantities: technetium, atomic number 43; promethium, number 61; astatine, number 85; francium, number 87; neptunium, number 93; and plutonium, number 94. These 94 elements have been detected in the universe at large, in the spectra of stars and also supernovae, where short-lived radioactive elements are newly being made. The first 94 elements have been detected directly on Earth as primordial nuclides present from the formation of the solar system, or as naturally occurring fission or transmutation products of uranium and thorium.
The remaining 24 heavier elements, not found today either on Earth or in astronomical spectra, have been produced artificially: these are all radioactive, with very short half-lives; if any atoms of these elements were present at the formation of Earth, they are extremely likely, to the point of certainty, to have already decayed, and if present in novae have been in quantities too small to have been noted. Technetium was the first purportedly non-naturally occurring element synthesized, in 1937, although trace amounts of technetium have since been found in nature (and also the element may have been discovered naturally in 1925). This pattern of artificial production and later natural discovery has been repeated with several other radioactive naturally occurring rare elements.
List of the elements are available by name, atomic number, density, melting point, boiling point and by symbol, as well as ionization energies of the elements. The nuclides of stable and radioactive elements are also available as a list of nuclides, sorted by length of half-life for those that are unstable. One of the most convenient, and certainly the most traditional presentation of the elements, is in the form of the periodic table, which groups together elements with similar chemical properties (and usually also similar electronic structures).
The atomic number of an element is equal to the number of protons in each atom, and defines the element. For example, all carbon atoms contain 6 protons in their atomic nucleus; so the atomic number of carbon is 6. Carbon atoms may have different numbers of neutrons; atoms of the same element having different numbers of neutrons are known as isotopes of the element.
The number of protons in the atomic nucleus also determines its electric charge, which in turn determines the number of electrons of the atom in its non-ionized state. The electrons are placed into atomic orbitals that determine the atom's various chemical properties. The number of neutrons in a nucleus usually has very little effect on an element's chemical properties (except in the case of hydrogen and deuterium). Thus, all carbon isotopes have nearly identical chemical properties because they all have six protons and six electrons, even though carbon atoms may, for example, have 6 or 8 neutrons. That is why the atomic number, rather than mass number or atomic weight, is considered the identifying characteristic of a chemical element.
The symbol for atomic number is Z.
Isotopes are atoms of the same element (that is, with the same number of protons in their atomic nucleus), but having different numbers of neutrons. Thus, for example, there are three main isotopes of carbon. All carbon atoms have 6 protons in the nucleus, but they can have either 6, 7, or 8 neutrons. Since the mass numbers of these are 12, 13 and 14 respectively, the three isotopes of carbon are known as carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14, often abbreviated to 12C, 13C, and 14C. Carbon in everyday life and in chemistry is a mixture of 12C (about 98.9%), 13C (about 1.1%) and about 1 atom per trillion of 14C.
Most (66 of 94) naturally occurring elements have more than one stable isotope. Except for the isotopes of hydrogen (which differ greatly from each other in relative mass—enough to cause chemical effects), the isotopes of a given element are chemically nearly indistinguishable.
All of the elements have some isotopes that are radioactive (radioisotopes), although not all of these radioisotopes occur naturally. The radioisotopes typically decay into other elements upon radiating an alpha or beta particle. If an element has isotopes that are not radioactive, these are termed "stable" isotopes. All of the known stable isotopes occur naturally (see primordial isotope). The many radioisotopes that are not found in nature have been characterized after being artificially made. Certain elements have no stable isotopes and are composed only of radioactive isotopes: specifically the elements without any stable isotopes are technetium (atomic number 43), promethium (atomic number 61), and all observed elements with atomic numbers greater than 82.
Of the 80 elements with at least one stable isotope, 26 have only one single stable isotope. The mean number of stable isotopes for the 80 stable elements is 3.1 stable isotopes per element. The largest number of stable isotopes that occur for a single element is 10 (for tin, element 50).
Isotopic mass and atomic mass
The mass number of an element, A, is the number of nucleons (protons and neutrons) in the atomic nucleus. Different isotopes of a given element are distinguished by their mass numbers, which are conventionally written as a superscript on the left hand side of the atomic symbol (e.g. 238U). The mass number is always a whole number and has units of "nucleons". For example, magnesium-24 (24 is the mass number) is an atom with 24 nucleons (12 protons and 12 neutrons).
Whereas the mass number simply counts the total number of neutrons and protons and is thus a natural (or whole) number, the atomic mass of a single atom is a real number giving the mass of a particular isotope (or "nuclide") of the element, expressed in atomic mass units (symbol: u). In general, the mass number of a given nuclide differs in value slightly from its atomic mass, since the mass of each proton and neutron is not exactly 1 u; since the electrons contribute a lesser share to the atomic mass as neutron number exceeds proton number; and (finally) because of the nuclear binding energy. For example, the atomic mass of chlorine-35 to five significant digits is 34.969 u and that of chlorine-37 is 36.966 u. However, the atomic mass in u of each isotope is quite close to its simple mass number (always within 1%). The only isotope whose atomic mass is exactly a natural number is 12C, which by definition has a mass of exactly 12 because u is defined as 1/12 of the mass of a free neutral carbon-12 atom in the ground state.
The standard atomic weight (commonly called "atomic weight") of an element is the average of the atomic masses of all the chemical element's isotopes as found in a particular environment, weighted by isotopic abundance, relative to the atomic mass unit. This number may be a fraction that is not close to a whole number. For example, the relative atomic mass of chlorine is 35.453 u, which differs greatly from a whole number as it is an average of about 76% chlorine-35 and 24% chlorine-37. Whenever a relative atomic mass value differs by more than 1% from a whole number, it is due to this averaging effect, as significant amounts of more than one isotope are naturally present in a sample of that element.
Chemically pure and isotopically pure
Chemists and nuclear scientists have different definitions of a pure element. In chemistry, a pure element means a substance whose atoms all (or in practice almost all) have the same atomic number, or number of protons. Nuclear scientists, however, define a pure element as one that consists of only one stable isotope.
For example, a copper wire is 99.99% chemically pure if 99.99% of its atoms are copper, with 29 protons each. However it is not isotopically pure since ordinary copper consists of two stable isotopes, 69% 63Cu and 31% 65Cu, with different numbers of neutrons. However, a pure gold ingot would be both chemically and isotopically pure, since ordinary gold consists only of one isotope, 197Au.
Atoms of chemically pure elements may bond to each other chemically in more than one way, allowing the pure element to exist in multiple chemical structures (spatial arrangements of atoms), known as allotropes, which differ in their properties. For example, carbon can be found as diamond, which has a tetrahedral structure around each carbon atom; graphite, which has layers of carbon atoms with a hexagonal structure stacked on top of each other; graphene, which is a single layer of graphite that is very strong; fullerenes, which have nearly spherical shapes; and carbon nanotubes, which are tubes with a hexagonal structure (even these may differ from each other in electrical properties). The ability of an element to exist in one of many structural forms is known as 'allotropy'.
The standard state, also known as the reference state, of an element is defined as its thermodynamically most stable state at a pressure of 1 bar and a given temperature (typically at 298.15 K). In thermochemistry, an element is defined to have an enthalpy of formation of zero in its standard state. For example, the reference state for carbon is graphite, because the structure of graphite is more stable than that of the other allotropes.
Several kinds of descriptive categorizations can be applied broadly to the elements, including consideration of their general physical and chemical properties, their states of matter under familiar conditions, their melting and boiling points, their densities, their crystal structures as solids, and their origins.
Several terms are commonly used to characterize the general physical and chemical properties of the chemical elements. A first distinction is between metals, which readily conduct electricity, nonmetals, which do not, and a small group, (the metalloids), having intermediate properties and often behaving as semiconductors.
A more refined classification is often shown in colored presentations of the periodic table. This system restricts the terms "metal" and "nonmetal" to only certain of the more broadly defined metals and nonmetals, adding additional terms for certain sets of the more broadly viewed metals and nonmetals. The version of this classification used in the periodic tables presented here includes: actinides, alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, halogens, lanthanides, transition metals, post-transition metals, metalloids, reactive nonmetals, and noble gases. In this system, the alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, and transition metals, as well as the lanthanides and the actinides, are special groups of the metals viewed in a broader sense. Similarly, the reactive nonmetals and the noble gases are nonmetals viewed in the broader sense. In some presentations, the halogens are not distinguished, with astatine identified as a metalloid and the others identified as nonmetals.
States of matter
Another commonly used basic distinction among the elements is their state of matter (phase), whether solid, liquid, or gas, at a selected standard temperature and pressure (STP). Most of the elements are solids at conventional temperatures and atmospheric pressure, while several are gases. Only bromine and mercury are liquids at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and normal atmospheric pressure; caesium and gallium are solids at that temperature, but melt at 28.4 °C (83.2 °F) and 29.8 °C (85.6 °F), respectively.
Melting and boiling points
Melting and boiling points, typically expressed in degrees Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere, are commonly used in characterizing the various elements. While known for most elements, either or both of these measurements is still undetermined for some of the radioactive elements available in only tiny quantities. Since helium remains a liquid even at absolute zero at atmospheric pressure, it has only a boiling point, and not a melting point, in conventional presentations.
The density at selected standard temperature and pressure (STP) is frequently used in characterizing the elements. Density is often expressed in grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3). Since several elements are gases at commonly encountered temperatures, their densities are usually stated for their gaseous forms; when liquefied or solidified, the gaseous elements have densities similar to those of the other elements.
When an element has allotropes with different densities, one representative allotrope is typically selected in summary presentations, while densities for each allotrope can be stated where more detail is provided. For example, the three familiar allotropes of carbon (amorphous carbon, graphite, and diamond) have densities of 1.8–2.1, 2.267, and 3.515 g/cm3, respectively.
The elements studied to date as solid samples have eight kinds of crystal structures: cubic, body-centered cubic, face-centered cubic, hexagonal, monoclinic, orthorhombic, rhombohedral, and tetragonal. For some of the synthetically produced transuranic elements, available samples have been too small to determine crystal structures.
Occurrence and origin on Earth
Chemical elements may also be categorized by their origin on Earth, with the first 94 considered naturally occurring, while those with atomic numbers beyond 94 have only been produced artificially as the synthetic products of man-made nuclear reactions.
Of the 94 naturally occurring elements, 83 are considered primordial and either stable or weakly radioactive. The remaining 11 naturally occurring elements possess half lives too short for them to have been present at the beginning of the Solar System, and are therefore considered transient elements. Of these 11 transient elements, 5 (polonium, radon, radium, actinium, and protactinium) are relatively common decay products of thorium and uranium. The remaining 6 transient elements (technetium, promethium, astatine, francium, neptunium, and plutonium) occur only rarely, as products of rare decay modes or nuclear reaction processes involving uranium or other heavy elements.
No radioactive decay has been observed for elements with atomic numbers 1 through 82, except 43 (technetium) and 61 (promethium). Observationally stable isotopes of some elements (such as tungsten and lead), however, are predicted to be slightly radioactive with very long half-lives: for example, the half-lives predicted for the observationally stable lead isotopes range from 1035 to 10189 years. Elements with atomic numbers 43, 61, and 83 through 94 are unstable enough that their radioactive decay can readily be detected. Three of these elements, bismuth (element 83), thorium (element 90), and uranium (element 92) have one or more isotopes with half-lives long enough to survive as remnants of the explosive stellar nucleosynthesis that produced the heavy elements before the formation of our solar system. For example, at over 1.9×1019 years, over a billion times longer than the current estimated age of the universe, bismuth-209 has the longest known alpha decay half-life of any naturally occurring element. The very heaviest 24 elements (those beyond plutonium, element 94) undergo radioactive decay with short half-lives and cannot be produced as daughters of longer-lived elements, and thus are not known to occur in nature at all.
Background color shows subcategory in the metal–metalloid–nonmetal trend:
The properties of the chemical elements are often summarized using the periodic table, which powerfully and elegantly organizes the elements by increasing atomic number into rows ("periods") in which the columns ("groups") share recurring ("periodic") physical and chemical properties. The current standard table contains 118 confirmed elements as of 2019.
Although earlier precursors to this presentation exist, its invention is generally credited to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, who intended the table to illustrate recurring trends in the properties of the elements. The layout of the table has been refined and extended over time as new elements have been discovered and new theoretical models have been developed to explain chemical behavior.
Use of the periodic table is now ubiquitous within the academic discipline of chemistry, providing an extremely useful framework to classify, systematize and compare all the many different forms of chemical behavior. The table has also found wide application in physics, geology, biology, materials science, engineering, agriculture, medicine, nutrition, environmental health, and astronomy. Its principles are especially important in chemical engineering.