Electron configuration | applications


The most widespread application of electron configurations is in the rationalization of chemical properties, in both inorganic and organic chemistry. In effect, electron configurations, along with some simplified form of molecular orbital theory, have become the modern equivalent of the valence concept, describing the number and type of chemical bonds that an atom can be expected to form.

This approach is taken further in computational chemistry, which typically attempts to make quantitative estimates of chemical properties. For many years, most such calculations relied upon the "linear combination of atomic orbitals" (LCAO) approximation, using an ever-larger and more complex basis set of atomic orbitals as the starting point. The last step in such a calculation is the assignment of electrons among the molecular orbitals according to the Aufbau principle. Not all methods in calculational chemistry rely on electron configuration: density functional theory (DFT) is an important example of a method that discards the model.

For atoms or molecules with more than one electron, the motion of electrons are correlated and such a picture is no longer exact. A very large number of electronic configurations are needed to exactly describe any multi-electron system, and no energy can be associated with one single configuration. However, the electronic wave function is usually dominated by a very small number of configurations and therefore the notion of electronic configuration remains essential for multi-electron systems.

A fundamental application of electron configurations is in the interpretation of atomic spectra. In this case, it is necessary to supplement the electron configuration with one or more term symbols, which describe the different energy levels available to an atom. Term symbols can be calculated for any electron configuration, not just the ground-state configuration listed in tables, although not all the energy levels are observed in practice. It is through the analysis of atomic spectra that the ground-state electron configurations of the elements were experimentally determined.