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The lightest of the chemical elements are hydrogen and helium, both created by Big Bang nucleosynthesis during the first 20 minutes of the universe[6] in a ratio of around 3:1 by mass (or 12:1 by number of atoms).[7][8] Almost all other elements found in nature were made by various natural methods of nucleosynthesis.[9] 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 98 naturally occurring elements, those with atomic numbers 1 through 40 are all considered stable. At least one isotope of each element with atomic numbers 41 through 82 is apparently stable (except technetium, element 43 and promethium, element 61, which have no stable isotopes) but theoretically unstable (in that their fission would release energy) and thus possibly mildly radioactive.[10][11][not in citation given] The half-lives of elements 41 through 82 are so long, however, that their radioactive decay remains undetected by experiment. These "theoretical radionuclides" have half-lives at least 100 million times longer than the estimated age of the universe.[citation needed] Elements with atomic numbers 83 through 98 are unstable to the point that their radioactive decay can be detected. Some of these elements, notably bismuth (atomic number 83), thorium (atomic number 90), uranium (atomic number 92) and plutonium (atomic number 94), 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 (atomic number 83) has the longest known alpha decay half-life of any naturally occurring element.[12][13] The very heaviest elements (those beyond californium, atomic number 98) undergo radioactive decay with half-lives so short that they do not occur 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).[14][15] Of these 118 elements, 98 occur naturally on Earth.[16] Ten of these occur in extreme trace quantities: technetium, atomic number 43; promethium, number 61; astatine, number 85; francium, number 87; neptunium, number 93; plutonium, number 94; americium, number 95; curium, number 96; berkelium, number 97; and californium, number 98. These 98 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 98 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 20 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).[17] This pattern of artificial production and later natural discovery has been repeated with several other radioactive naturally-occurring rare elements.[18]

Lists of the elements are available by name, by symbol, by atomic number, by density, by melting point, and by boiling point 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).

Atomic number[edit]

Main article: atomic number

The atomic number of an element is equal to the number of protons in each atom, and defines the element.[19] For example, all carbon atoms contain 6 protons in their atomic nucleus; so the atomic number of carbon is 6.[20] 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.[21]

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.[citation needed]

The symbol for atomic number is Z.[citation needed]


Main articles: Isotope, Stable isotope and List of nuclides

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. Most (66 of 94) naturally occurring elements have more than one stable isotope. 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, 13C, and (a very small fraction of) 14C atoms.

Except in the case of 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[edit]

Main articles: atomic mass and relative 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 simple whole number and has units of "nucleons." An example of a referral to a mass number is "magnesium-24," which 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 for the mass of a particular isotope of the element, the unit being u. In general, when expressed in u it differs in value slightly from the mass number for a given nuclide (or isotope) since the mass of the protons and neutrons 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 relative atomic mass (historically and commonly also 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 (u). This number may be a fraction that is not close to a whole number, due to the averaging process. For example, the relative atomic mass of chlorine is 35.453 u, which differs greatly from a whole number due to being made of an average of 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 resulting from significant amounts of more than one isotope being naturally present in the sample of the element in question.

Chemically pure and isotopically pure[edit]

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.[22]

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 isotopes, 69% 63Cu and 31% 65Cu, with different numbers of neutrons.…...

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