Periodic Table

Imagine you are doing a jigsaw puzzle. As the clock is ticking, you organise each and every piece - matching together each part until eventually, with relief and a sense of accomplishment, you form the picture. Quite tricky, right? 

Periodic Table Periodic Table

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    Now, imagine doing the same puzzle with half of the pieces missing, and without a finished picture to help you. This is what chemists must have felt like when they were trying to arrange all of the elements into what we now know as the periodic table. In other words, the periodic table is a display of elements ordered according to their atomic number.

    • We will look at the periodic table in physical chemistry.
    • We'll start by defining the periodic table, before looking at how it is structured.
    • We'll then explore its history.
    • By the end of this article, you should be able to explain how the periodic table is structured, compare rows, columns, and blocks in the periodic table, and describe how the periodic table has changed over time.

    Periodic table of elements

    Here's the definition of the periodic table:

    The periodic table of elements is a table of chemical elements ordered based on their atomic number, electron configuration, and recurring chemical properties. It provides a systematic way of organizing and classifying the elements.

    Periodic Table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The periodic table

    The periodic table is handy because it orders elements into rows and columns based on their properties. This means that once you know an element's position in the periodic table, you can predict how it behaves and reacts. Let's start by looking at its structure.

    How is the periodic table structured?

    First and foremost, the periodic table consists of elements. These elements are assembled in rows, columns, and blocks. It hasn't always been like this, but we'll get into how it has changed later, when we discuss the history of the periodic table. As of now, we'll delve into the ways the periodic table is structured.

    Elements in the periodic table

    As we defined above, the periodic table is an arrangement of elements. Remember that an element is a pure chemical substance consisting of atoms that all have the same number of protons in their nuclei. Its exact number of protons determines its number of electrons; this is what makes an element, well, an element!

    Elements in the periodic table are shown using their chemical symbol. This is a one or two-letter abbreviation, unique to each element. The first letter is always capitalised and the second letter is in lowercase. For example, copper is known as Cu, calcium as Ca, and carbon as C. Elements are also shown with their atomic number and relative atomic mass.

    An element's atomic number is the number of protons found in its nucleus, whilst its relative atomic mass is the average mass of one atom in the element. This is the mass of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. Relative atomic mass is measured on a particular scale, where a carbon-12 atom has a mass of exactly 12.

    Periodic Table, an element, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An element

    Head over to Mass Spectrometry for more about relative atomic mass. You can also find out more about how an atom's protons and electrons influence its properties in Fundamental Particles.

    Periods in the periodic table

    One of the ways elements are assembled in the periodic table is in rows. A row in the periodic table is known as a period; this is where the word periodic comes from. Rows in the periodic table show periodicity.

    Periodicity refers to the trends you see as you go across a period (row) in the periodic table. These trends repeat with every new period.

    Elements in a period are ordered by increasing atomic number. Remember that atomic number is the number of protons in an element. Atomic number increases by 1 each time you move from left to right across a period in the table. When you reach the end of a period, you move down and left to the start of a new one, and continue counting atomic numbers from there. In total there are 7 periods in the periodic table.

    Periodic Table, periods in the periodic table, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Periods in the periodic table

    Periodic Table, Atomic number increases along a period, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Atomic number increases as you go along a period

    Elements in the same period have the same number of electron shells. For example, the elements in period 1 have just one electron shell, whereas the elements in period 5 all have five electron shells.

    Periodic Table Groups

    Elements in the periodic table are also assembled in columns. These columns are called groups. In total, there are 18 groups in the periodic table, with the official IUPAC numbering of 1-18. However, for the purpose of your course, we will be following the traditional numbering system which is 1-0 or 1-8. This is often shown in roman numerals. The groups are:

    • Alkali metals (group I)

    • Alkaline earth metals (group II)

    • Boron group (group III)

    • Carbon group (group IV)

    • The pnictogens (group V)

    • The chalcogens (group VI)

    • The halogens (group VII)

    • Noble gases (group VIII)

    Periodic Table, groups, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Groups in the periodic table

    Elements are grouped according to the number of electrons they have in their outer shell. Outer shell electrons are also known as valence electrons. Valence electrons determine the chemical properties and reactivity of an element. This means that elements in the same group all react in a similar way. However, note that each element in a group has one more electron shell than the element above it.

    Valence electrons are the electrons that are on the outer shell of an atom.

    The old numbering system is useful because it gives us an indication of how many valence electrons an element in a particular group has. For example, all of the elements in group I, the alkali metals, have one valence electron. In contrast, all of the elements in group VII, the halogens, have seven valence electrons. The noble gases, group VIII, all have eight valence electrons, giving them complete outer electron shells.

    Group I also includes hydrogen, even though it isn't an alkali metal and reacts quite differently to the other members of the group. With an atomic number of 1, hydrogen is the lightest element in existence. It has just one proton and one electron. You might therefore expect to find the next lightest element, helium, next door in group II, as it has just two protons and two electrons. However, helium is instead found in group VIII. This is because helium's valence electron shell only has room for two electrons, meaning helium actually has a full outer shell of electrons. This makes it behave like the other elements in group VIII.

    The number of groups in the periodic table, which is 18, was recommended by the International Union of Pure And Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in 1988. It superseded the older numbering system, 1–0, or 1–8 (which excludes the d- and f-block elements, which we'll get to later). The older system is still in common use, especially in the English (AQA) and Scottish (SQA) exam boards, and is the version you need to know.

    Blocks in the periodic table

    You might have noticed that using the old system for numbering groups misses out two large chunks of the periodic table. What about the elements between groups II and III, found in the IUPAC groups 3 to 12? How about those two rows of elements below the periodic table - where do they fit in? Well, another way of looking at the periodic table is by splitting it up into blocks.

    Blocks in the periodic table are groups of elements that all have their highest energy valence electron in the same subshell.

    There are four blocks in the periodic table:

    • s-block elements all have their highest energy valence electron in an s-subshell. The s-block includes groups I and II.
    • p-block elements all have their highest energy valence electron in a p-subshell. The p-block includes groups III to VIII, or in IUPAC terms, 13 to 18, and is mostly made up of non-metals.
    • d-block elements all have their highest energy valence electron in a d-subshell. The d-block includes groups 3 to 12 and also features the transition metals.
    • f-block elements all have their highest energy valence electron in an f-subshell. The f-block includes the lanthanides and the actinides. These are the two rows shown below the main body of the periodic table. We've shown where they fit in relationship to the other elements in the periodic table below.

    Yes, we know that we said helium was in group VIII, but instead of being in the p-block like all of the other elements in group VIII, it is found in the s-block. Remember how its outer shell only has room for two electrons? This is because the shell contains just an s-subshell, whilst all of the other members of group VIII have a p-subshell as well. This means that helium's highest energy valence electron is found in an s-subshell, making it an s-block element.

    For more about electron subshells, take a look at Electron Shells and Electron Configuration.

    Periodic Table, blocks in the periodic table, StudySmarterFig. 6 - Blocks in the periodic table

    Periodic Table Metals, non-metals, and metalloids

    The final way of structuring the periodic table that we'll look at today involves splitting the table with a zigzagging line. It starts to the left of boron and meanders its way down and to the right, sneaking between silicon and germanium, then between arsenic and antimony and tellurium and polonium. Finally, it splits astatine from tennessine, before finishing off to the left of oganesson.

    This line has various names: the metal-nonmetal line, the amphoteric line, the metalloid line, and the staircase. It divides the table into metals, non-metals, and metalloids.

    • The elements to the left of the line are classified as metals.
    • The elements to the right of the line (as well as hydrogen) are classified as non-metals.
    • Some of the elements touching the line are classified as metalloids.

    Periodic Table, metals non-metals metalloids, StudySmarterFig. 7 - Metals, non-metals, and metalloids in the periodic table

    Metals in the periodic table

    Metals appear on the left-hand side of the periodic table. They have some characteristic properties.

    • Metals typically lose electrons to form positive cations.
    • They have high melting and boiling points.
    • They have low electronegativity values.
    • They have a shiny, lustrous appearance when freshly cut.
    • They are malleable and ductile.
    • They're good conductors of heat and electricity.

    Non-metals in the periodic table

    Non-metals are found on the right-hand side of the periodic table (with the exception of hydrogen, which is also a non-metal). As the name suggests, they're the opposites of metals. In fact, you can think of them as simply lacking in metallic characteristics.

    • Non-metals typically gain electrons to form negative anions.
    • They have high electronegativity values.
    • They exhibit a range of melting and boiling points. Some, like silicon, have extremely high melting points whilst others, like oxygen, have low melting points.
    • The solid non-metals are brittle.
    • They're poor conductors of heat and electricity.

    Metalloids in the periodic table

    Metalloids are found in the middle of the periodic table. They straddle the dividing line that splits metals from non-metals, and their properties are halfway between the two.

    • Typically, metalloids are shiny and lustrous when cut, but are brittle in nature.
    • They have medium electronegativity values.
    • They are average conductors of electricity.

    There's no fixed scientific definition of metal, non-metal, and metalloid. Because of this, different sources might classify certain elements differently, and in fact, some scientists even draw the dividing line in a different place. For example, carbon and selenium are sometimes recognised as metalloids.

    We now know what the periodic table looks like and how it is structured. But how did it come to be this way?

    History of the periodic table

    At the start of the article, we compared creating the first version of the periodic table to attempting a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing and no picture to guide you. For chemists in the years leading up to the 19th century, this was the challenge they faced. Let's focus on three scientists and the contributions they made to the modern periodic table.

    Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner

    In 1817, German physicist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner was the first to attempt to classify the elements. He noticed that you could put certain elements in groups of three, called triads, and that the elements within a triad shared similar properties. In fact, the properties of the second element in the triad fell halfway between those of the first and those of the third. For example, he grouped together lithium, sodium, and potassium, all metals that we now know as being in Group I.

    John Newlands

    In 1864, British chemist John Newlands also noticed the similarities in properties between certain elements. He saw that if you arranged all of the elements in a table by atomic mass, their properties were repeated at regular intervals. These properties repeated every eight elements, leading to the name 'the law of octaves'.

    However, at the time, only 60 or so elements had been discovered. Newlands wrongly assumed that those were the only elements that existed. He didn't leave gaps for any undiscovered elements, so his table didn't really make sense after calcium. He also sometimes put two elements in the same box. In general, his ideas were ridiculed by his peers.

    Periodic Table, Newland's version of the periodic table, StudySmarterFig. 8 - Newlands's version of the periodic table

    Dmitri Mendeleev

    Finally, in 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev arrived at the version of the periodic table that we know today. He took Newlands' idea about the law of octaves but left gaps for undiscovered elements, predicting their properties from the behaviour of the elements around them. Although he mostly arranged the elements in order of atomic mass, he switched a few of them around to better fit with his law of octaves.

    For example, argon was much heavier than potassium, but putting potassium before argon would mean the highly reactive metal potassium would be in a group with unreactive non-metal gases, whilst the unreactive argon would be in a group with reactive metals. His table was gradually accepted when new elements were discovered that matched his predicted properties. The issue of atomic mass was solved when subatomic particles were discovered in the 20th century and scientists realised that elements should really be ordered by atomic number, and not mass.

    Periodic Table, Mendeleev's version of the periodic table, StudySmarterFig. 9 - Mendeleev's version of the periodic table, with gaps left for undiscovered elements

    Periodic Table - Key takeaways

    • The periodic table is a display of elements ordered according to their atomic numbers.
    • The periodic table is structured into rows, columns, and blocks.
    • A row in the periodic table is known as a period. Periods show periodicity, meaning they show trends in their properties which repeat every row. Atomic number increases as you move across a period in the periodic table.
    • A column in the periodic table is known as a group. Elements in the same group have the same number of valence electrons and react in similar ways.
    • The periodic table is divided into blocks. Blocks are groups of elements that all have their highest energy valence electron in the same subshell.
    • You can also classify elements as metals, non-metals, and metalloids. Metals are found on the left of the periodic table, whilst non-metals are found on the right. Metalloids are found between the two.
    • Previous versions of the periodic table ordered elements by atomic mass, not atomic number. The modern periodic table as we know it today was created by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Periodic Table

    How many elements are there in the periodic table?


    What is the periodic table?

    A tabular arrangement of chemical elements that is arranged by increasing atomic number, and groups elements according to recurring properties.

    What are the rows of the periodic table called?

    The rows are called periods.

    How are elements arranged in the periodic table?

    The elements in the periodic table are arranged by increasing order of atomic number.

    Who invented the periodic table?

    The chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table.

    In what table are all the elements shown?

    All elements are shown in the periodic table.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the correct classification of the element Zr, zirconium

    What is the correct equation for the second ionization energy of Rubidium?

    What is the unit of atomic radius?

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