The 14th International Conference on
Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences
In atomic theory and quantum mechanics, an atomic orbital is a mathematical function that describes the wave-like behavior of either one electron or a pair of electrons in an atom. This function can be used to calculate the probability of finding any electron of an atom in any specific region around the atom's nucleus. The term atomic orbital may also refer to the physical region or space where the electron can be calculated to be present, as defined by the particular mathematical form of the orbital.
Atomic orbitals may be defined more precisely in formal quantum mechanical language. Specifically, in quantum mechanics, the state of an atom, i.e., an eigenstate of the atomic Hamiltonian, is approximated by an expansion (see configuration interaction expansion and basis set) into linear combinations of anti-symmetrized products (Slater determinants) of one-electron functions. The spatial components of these one-electron functions are called atomic orbitals. (When one considers also their spin component, one speaks of atomic spin orbitals.) A state is actually a function of the coordinates of all the electrons, so that their motion is correlated, but this is often approximated by this independent-particle model of products of single electron wave functions. (The London dispersion force, for example, depends on the correlations of the motion of the electrons.).
This notation means that the corresponding Slater determinants have a clear higher weight in the configuration interaction expansion. The atomic orbital concept is therefore a key concept for visualizing the excitation process associated with a given transition. For example, one can say for a given transition that it corresponds to the excitation of an electron from an occupied orbital to a given unoccupied orbital. Nevertheless, one has to keep in mind that electrons are fermions ruled by the Pauli exclusion principle and cannot be distinguished from the other electrons in the atom. Moreover, it sometimes happens that the configuration interaction expansion converges very slowly and that one cannot speak about simple one-determinant wave function at all. This is the case when electron correlation is large.
With J. J. Thomson's discovery of the electron in 1897, it became clear that atoms were not the smallest building blocks of nature, but were rather composite particles. The newly discovered structure within atoms tempted many to imagine how the atom's constituent parts might interact with each other. Thomson theorized that multiple electrons revolved in orbit-like rings within a positively charged jelly-like substance, and between the electron's discovery and 1909, this "plum pudding model" was the most widely accepted explanation of atomic structure.
After Bohr's use of Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect to relate energy levels in atoms with the wavelength of emitted light, the connection between the structure of electrons in atoms and the emission and absorption spectra of atoms became an increasingly useful tool in the understanding of electrons in atoms. The most prominent feature of emission and absorption spectra (known experimentally since the middle of the 19th century), was that these atomic spectra contained discrete lines. The significance of the Bohr model was that it related the lines in emission and absorption spectra to the energy differences between the orbits that electrons could take around an atom. This was, however, not achieved by Bohr through giving the electrons some kind of wave-like properties, since the idea that electrons could behave as matter waves was not suggested until eleven years later. Still, the Bohr model's use of quantized angular momenta and therefore quantized energy levels was a significant step towards the understanding of electrons in atoms, and also a significant step towards the development of quantum mechanics in suggesting that quantized restraints must account for all discontinuous energy levels and spectra in atoms.
Immediately after Heisenberg discovered his uncertainty principle, Bohr noted that the existence of any sort of wave packet implies uncertainty in the wave frequency and wavelength, since a spread of frequencies is needed to create the packet itself. In quantum mechanics, where all particle momenta are associated with waves, it is the formation of such a wave packet which localizes the wave, and thus the particle, in space. In states where a quantum mechanical particle is bound, it must be localized as a wave packet, and the existence of the packet and its minimum size implies a spread and minimal value in particle wavelength, and thus also momentum and energy. In quantum mechanics, as a particle is localized to a smaller region in space, the associated compressed wave packet requires a larger and larger range of momenta, and thus larger kinetic energy. Thus the binding energy to contain or trap a particle in a smaller region of space increases without bound as the region of space grows smaller. Particles cannot be restricted to a geometric point in space, since this would require an infinite particle momentum.
The simplest atomic orbitals are those that are calculated for systems with a single electron, such as the hydrogen atom. An atom of any other element ionized down to a single electron is very similar to hydrogen, and the orbitals take the same form. In the Schrodinger equation for this system of one negative and one positive particle, the atomic orbitals are the eigenstates of the Hamiltonian operator for the energy. They can be obtained analytically, meaning that the resulting orbitals are products of a polynomial series, and exponential and trigonometric functions. (see hydrogen atom).
Because of the quantum mechanical nature of the electrons around a nucleus, atomic orbitals can be uniquely defined by a set of integers known as quantum numbers. These quantum numbers only occur in certain combinations of values, and their physical interpretation changes depending on whether real or complex versions of the atomic orbitals are employed.
An atom that is embedded in a crystalline solid feels multiple preferred axes, but often no preferred direction. Instead of building atomic orbitals out of the product of radial functions and a single spherical harmonic, linear combinations of spherical harmonics are typically used, designed so that the imaginary part of the spherical harmonics cancel out. These real orbitals are the building blocks most commonly shown in orbital visualizations.
A mental "planetary orbit" picture closest to the behavior of electrons in s orbitals, all of which have no angular momentum, might perhaps be that of a Keplerian orbit with the orbital eccentricity of 1 but a finite major axis, not physically possible (because particles were to collide), but can be imagined as a limit of orbits with equal major axes but increasing eccentricity.