The 14th International Conference on

Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences

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Chemical element


Chemical element

A chemical element is a species of atom having the same number of protons in their atomic nuclei (that is, the same atomic number, or Z). For example, the atomic number of oxygen is 8, so the element oxygen consists of all atoms which have 8 protons.

When different elements are chemically combined, with the atoms held together by chemical bonds, they form chemical compounds. Only a minority of elements are found uncombined as relatively pure minerals. Among the more common of such native elements are copper, silver, gold, carbon (as coal, graphite, or diamonds), and sulfur. All but a few of the most inert elements, such as noble gases and noble metals, are usually found on Earth in chemically combined form, as chemical compounds. While about 32 of the chemical elements occur on Earth in native uncombined forms, most of these occur as mixtures. For example, atmospheric air is primarily a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, and native solid elements occur in alloys, such as that of iron and nickel.

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.

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'.

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.

In the second half of the twentieth century, physics laboratories became able to produce nuclei of chemical elements with half-lives too short for an appreciable amount of them to exist at any time. These are also named by IUPAC, which generally adopts the name chosen by the discoverer. This practice can lead to the controversial question of which research group actually discovered an element, a question that delayed the naming of elements with atomic number of 104 and higher for a considerable amount of time. (See element naming controversy).

Only about 4% of the total mass of the universe is made of atoms or ions, and thus represented by chemical elements. This fraction is about 15% of the total matter, with the remainder of the matter (85%) being dark matter. The nature of dark matter is unknown, but it is not composed of atoms of chemical elements because it contains no protons, neutrons, or electrons. (The remaining non-matter part of the mass of the universe is composed of the even more mysterious dark energy).

The following graph (note log scale) shows the abundance of elements in our Solar System. The table shows the twelve most common elements in our galaxy (estimated spectroscopically), as measured in parts per million, by mass. Nearby galaxies that have evolved along similar lines have a corresponding enrichment of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The more distant galaxies are being viewed as they appeared in the past, so their abundances of elements appear closer to the primordial mixture. As physical laws and processes appear common throughout the visible universe, however, scientist expect that these galaxies evolved elements in similar abundance.

The term 'elements' (stoicheia) was first used by the Greek philosopher Plato in about 360 BCE in his dialogue Timaeus, which includes a discussion of the composition of inorganic and organic bodies and is a speculative treatise on chemistry. Plato believed the elements introduced a century earlier by Empedocles were composed of small polyhedral forms: tetrahedron (fire), octahedron (air), icosahedron (water), and cube (earth).

By 1914, seventy-two elements were known, all naturally occurring. The remaining naturally occurring elements were discovered or isolated in subsequent decades, and various additional elements have also been produced synthetically, with much of that work pioneered by Glenn T. Seaborg. In 1955, element 101 was discovered and named mendelevium in honor of D.I. Mendeleev, the first to arrange the elements in a periodic manner. Most recently, the synthesis of element 118 (since named oganesson) was reported in October 2006, and the synthesis of element 117 (tennessine) was reported in April 2010.


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