Atoms are very small, they have a radius of around 1×10-10 metres.
Each particle has its own charge and its own mass.
|Relative charge||Relative mass|
|Electron||-1||Close to 0 (1/2,000)|
Protons and neutrons are the heaviest particles in an atom and, as a result, they make up most of the mass of the atom. The mass of electrons is often not considered to be significant.
The number of protons is what defines the element, ie an atom with six protons in its nucleus will always be carbon, and uranium will always have 92 protons.
In a neutral atom, the number of electrons is always the same as the number of protons. If the atom becomes ionised however, the number of electrons will change. An ion is an atom that has lost or gained one or more electrons.
Mass number and atomic number are two important pieces of information about an atom.
An atom can be represented using the symbol notation:
For example, chlorine (Cl) can be shown as:
This symbol shows that chlorine has 35 particles in the nucleus (protons and neutrons), 17 of which are protons. It also tells us that chlorine has 18 neutrons (35 - 17) and, as the number of electrons and protons are equal in a neutral atom, chlorine also has 17 electrons.