Chromium is the fourth transition metal found on the periodic table, and has an electron configuration of [Ar] 3d5 4s1. It is also the first element in the periodic table whose ground-state electron configuration violates the Aufbau principle. This occurs again later in the periodic table with other elements and their electron configurations, such as copper, niobium, and molybdenum. This occurs because electrons in the same orbital repel each other due to their like charges. In the previous elements, the energetic cost of promoting an electron to the next higher energy level is too great to compensate for that released by lessening inter-electronic repulsion. However, in the 3d transition metals, the energy gap between the 3d and the next-higher 4s subshell is very small, and because the 3d subshell is more compact than the 4s subshell, inter-electron repulsion is smaller between 4s electrons than between 3d electrons. This lowers the energetic cost of promotion and increases the energy released by it, so that the promotion becomes energetically feasible and one or even two electrons are always promoted to the 4s subshell. (Similar promotions happen for every transition metal atom but one, palladium.)
Chromium is the first element in the 3d series where the 3d electrons start to sink into the inert core; they thus contribute less to metallic bonding, and hence the melting and boiling points and the enthalpy of atomisation of chromium are lower than those of the preceding element vanadium. Chromium(VI) is a strong oxidising agent in contrast to the molybdenum(VI) and tungsten(VI) oxides.
Sample of pure chromium metal
Chromium is extremely hard, and is the third hardest element behind carbon (diamond) and boron. Its Mohs hardness is 8.5, which means that it can scratch samples of quartz and topaz, but can be scratched by corundum. Chromium is highly resistant to tarnishing, which makes it useful as a metal that preserves its outermost layer from corroding, unlike other metals such as copper, magnesium, and aluminium.
Chromium has a melting point of 1907 °C (3465 °F), which is relatively low compared to the majority of transition metals. However, it still has the second highest melting point out of all the Period 4 elements, being topped by vanadium by 3 °C (5 °F) at 1910 °C (3470 °F). The boiling point of 2671 °C (4840 °F), however, is comparatively lower, having the third lowest boiling point out of the Period 4 transition metals alone behind manganese and zinc.[note 1] The electrical resistivity of chromium at 20 °C is 125 nanoohm-meters.
Chromium has a high specular reflection in comparison to other transition metals. In infrared, at 425 μm, chromium has a maximum reflectance of about 72%, reducing to a minimum of 62% at 750 μm before rising again to 90% of 4000 μm. When chromium is used in stainless steel alloys and polished, the specular reflection decreases with the inclusion of additional metals, yet is still high in comparison with other alloys. Between 40% and 60% of the visible spectrum is reflected from polished stainless steel. The explanation on why chromium displays such a high turnout of reflected photon waves in general, especially the 90% in infrared, can be attributed to chromium's magnetic properties. Chromium has unique magnetic properties in the sense that chromium is the only elemental solid which shows antiferromagnetic ordering at room temperature (and below). Above 38 °C, its magnetic ordering changes to paramagnetic. The antiferromagnetic properties, which cause the chromium atoms to temporarily ionize and bond with themselves, are present because the body-centric cubic's magnetic properties are disproportionate to the lattice periodicity. This is due to the fact that the magnetic moments at the cube's corners and the cube centers are not equal, but are still antiparallel. From here, the frequency-dependent relative permittivity of chromium, deriving from Maxwell's equations in conjunction with chromium's antiferromagnetivity, leaves chromium with a high infrared and visible light reflectance.
Chromium metal left standing in air is passivated, i.e. forms a thin, protective, surface layer of oxide. This layer has a spinel structure, only a few atomic layers thick. It is very dense and inhibits the diffusion of oxygen into the underlying metal. In contrast, iron forms a more porous oxide through which oxygen can migrate, causing continued rusting. Passivation can be enhanced by short contact with oxidizing acids like nitric acid. Passivated chromium is stable against acids. Passivation can be removed with a strong reducing agent that destroys the protective oxide layer on the metal. Chromium metal treated in this way readily dissolves in weak acids.
Chromium, unlike such metals as iron and nickel, does not suffer from hydrogen embrittlement. However, it does suffer from nitrogen embrittlement, reacting with nitrogen from air and forming brittle nitrides at the high temperatures necessary to work the metal parts.
Naturally occurring chromium is composed of three stable isotopes; 52Cr, 53Cr and 54Cr, with 52Cr being the most abundant (83.789% natural abundance). 19 radioisotopes have been characterized, with the most stable being 50Cr with a half-life of (more than) 1.8×1017 years, and 51Cr with a half-life of 27.7 days. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than 24 hours and the majority less than 1 minute. Chromium also has two metastable nuclear isomers.
53Cr is the radiogenic decay product of 53Mn (half-life = 3.74 million years). Chromium isotopes are typically collocated (and compounded) with manganese isotopes. This circumstance is useful in isotope geology. Manganese-chromium isotope ratios reinforce the evidence from 26Al and 107Pd concerning the early history of the Solar System. Variations in 53Cr/52Cr and Mn/Cr ratios from several meteorites indicate an initial 53Mn/55Mn ratio that suggests Mn-Cr isotopic composition must result from in-situ decay of 53Mn in differentiated planetary bodies. Hence 53Cr provides additional evidence for nucleosynthetic processes immediately before coalescence of the Solar System.
The isotopes of chromium range in atomic mass from 43 u (43Cr) to 67 u (67Cr). The primary decay mode before the most abundant stable isotope, 52Cr, is electron capture and the primary mode after is beta decay. 53Cr has been posited as a proxy for atmospheric oxygen concentration.