The incredible green lights in this cold northern sky consist of charged particles known as ions. Their swirling pattern is caused by the pull of Earth’s magnetic north pole. Called the northern lights, this phenomenon of nature shows that ions respond to a magnetic field. Do you know what ions are? Read on to find out.
Atoms Are Neutral
The northern lights aren’t caused by atoms, because atoms are not charged particles. An atom always has the same number of electrons as protons. Electrons have an electric charge of -1 and protons have an electric charge of +1. Therefore, the charges of an atom’s electrons and protons “cancel out.” This explains why atoms are neutral in electric charge.
Q: What would happen to an atom’s charge if it were to gain extra electrons?
Atoms to Ions
Atoms cannot only gain extra electrons. They can also lose electrons. In either case, they become ions. Ions are atoms that have a positive or negative charge because they have unequal numbers of protons and electrons. If atoms lose electrons, they become positive ions, or cations. If atoms gain electrons, they become negative ions, or anions. Consider the example of fluorine (see Figure below). A fluorine atom has nine protons and nine electrons, so it is electrically neutral. If a fluorine atom gains an electron, it becomes a fluoride ion with an electric charge of -1.
Names and Symbols
Like fluoride, other negative ions usually have names ending in –ide. Positive ions, on the other hand, are just given the element name followed by the word ion. For example, when a sodium atom loses an electron, it becomes a positive sodium ion. The charge of an ion is indicated by a plus (+) or minus sign (-), which is written to the right of and just above the ion’s chemical symbol. For example, the fluoride ion is represented by the symbol F-, and the sodium ion is represented by the symbol Na+. If the charge is greater than one, a number is used to indicate it. For example, iron (Fe) may lose two electrons to form an ion with a charge of plus two. This ion would be represented by the symbol Fe2+. This and some other common ions are listed with their symbols in the Table below.
|Name of Ion||Chemical Symbol||Name of Ion||Chemical Symbol|
Q: How does the iron(III) ion differ from the iron(II) ion?
A: The iron(III) ion has a charge of +3, so it has one less electron than the iron(II) ion, which has a charge of +2.
Q: What is the charge of an oxide ion? How does its number of electrons compare to its number of protons?
A: An oxide ion has a charge of -2. It has two more electrons than protons.
How Ions Form
The process in which an atom becomes an ion is called ionization. It may occur when atoms are exposed to high levels of radiation. The radiation may give their outer electrons enough energy to escape from the attraction of the positive nucleus. However, most ions form when atoms transfer electrons to or from other atoms or molecules. For example, sodium atoms may transfer electrons to chlorine atoms. This forms positive sodium ions (Na+) and negative chloride ions (Cl-). You can see an animation of this process at the URL below.
Q: Why do you think atoms lose electrons to, or gain electrons from, other atoms?
A: Atoms form ions by losing or gaining electrons because it makes them more stable and this state takes less energy to maintain. The most stable state for an atom is to have its outermost energy level filled with the maximum possible number of electrons. In the case of metals such as lithium, with just one electron in the outermost energy level, a more stable state can be achieved by losing that one outer electron. In the case of nonmetals such as fluorine, which has seven electrons in the outermost energy level, a more stable state can be achieved by gaining one electron and filling up the outer energy level. You can learn more about why ions form by watching the video at this URL:
Properties of Ions
Ions are highly reactive, especially as gases. They usually react with ions of opposite charge to form neutral compounds. For example, positive sodium ions and negative chloride ions react to form the neutral compound sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt. This occurs because oppositely charged ions attract each other. Ions with the same charge, on the other hand, repel each other. Ions are also deflected by a magnetic field, as you saw in the opening image of the northern lights.
- Atoms have equal numbers of positive protons and negative electrons, so they are neutral in electric charge.
- Atoms can gain or lose electrons and become ions, which are atoms that have a positive or negative charge because they have unequal numbers of protons and electrons.
- The process in which an atom becomes an ion is called ionization. It may occur when atoms are exposed to high levels of radiation or when atoms transfer electrons to or from other atoms.
- Ions are reactive, attracted or repulsed by other charged particles, and deflected by a magnetic field.
At the following URL, scroll down to the middle of the page and download “Ion Worksheet.” Then fill in the missing information in the worksheet.
- Why are atoms neutral in electric charge?
- Define ion.
- Compare and contrast cations and anions, and give an example of each.
- Describe how ions form.
- List properties of ions.
- The model in the illustration below represents an atom of lithium (Li). If the lithium atom becomes an ion, which type of ion will it be, a cation or an anion? What will be the electric charge of this ion? What will the ion be named? What symbol will be used to represent it?