Electron configuration

In atomic physics and quantum chemistry, the electron configuration is the distribution of electrons of an atom or molecule (or other physical structure) in atomic or molecular orbitals.[1] For example, the electron configuration of the neon atom is 1s2 2s2 2p6, using the notation explained below.

Electronic configurations describe each electron as moving independently in an orbital, in an average field created by all other orbitals. Mathematically, configurations are described by Slater determinants or configuration state functions.

According to the laws of quantum mechanics, for systems with only one electron, a level of energy is associated with each electron configuration and in certain conditions, electrons are able to move from one configuration to another by the emission or absorption of a quantum of energy, in the form of a photon.

Knowledge of the electron configuration of different atoms is useful in understanding the structure of the periodic table of elements. This is also useful for describing the chemical bonds that hold atoms together. In bulk materials, this same idea helps explain the peculiar properties of lasers and semiconductors.

Shells and subshells

s (=0) p (=1)
m=0 m=0 m=±1
s pz px py
n=1 Atomic-orbital-cloud n1 l0 m0.png
n=2 Atomic-orbital-cut psi n2l0m0.png Pz orbital.png Px orbital.png Py orbital.png

Electron configuration was first conceived under the Bohr model of the atom, and it is still common to speak of shells and subshells despite the advances in understanding of the quantum-mechanical nature of electrons.

An electron shell is the set of allowed states that share the same principal quantum number, n (the number before the letter in the orbital label), that electrons may occupy. An atom's nth electron shell can accommodate 2n2 electrons, e.g. the first shell can accommodate 2 electrons, the second shell 8 electrons, the third shell 18 electrons and so on. The factor of two arises because the allowed states are doubled due to electron spin—each atomic orbital admits up to two otherwise identical electrons with opposite spin, one with a spin +1/2 (usually denoted by an up-arrow) and one with a spin −1/2 (with a down-arrow).

A subshell is the set of states defined by a common azimuthal quantum number, ℓ, within a shell. The values ℓ = 0, 1, 2, 3 correspond to the s, p, d, and f labels, respectively. For example, the 3d subshell has n = 3 and ℓ = 2. The maximum number of electrons that can be placed in a subshell is given by 2(2ℓ+1). This gives two electrons in an s subshell, six electrons in a p subshell, ten electrons in a d subshell and fourteen electrons in an f subshell.

The numbers of electrons that can occupy each shell and each subshell arise from the equations of quantum mechanics,[2] in particular the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that no two electrons in the same atom can have the same values of the four quantum numbers.[3]