An electron shell may be thought of as an orbit followed by electrons around an atom nucleus. Because each shell can contain only a fixed number of electrons, each shell is associated with a particular range of electron energy, and thus each shell must fill completely before electrons can be added to an outer shell. The electrons in the outermost shell determine the chemical properties of the atom (see Valence shell). For an explanation of why electrons exist in these shells see electron configuration.
The shell terminology comes from Arnold Sommerfeld's modification of the Bohr model. Sommerfeld retained Bohr's planetary model, but added additional mildly elliptical orbits (characterized by additional quantum numbers l and m) to explain the fine spectroscopic structure of some elements. The multiple electrons with the same principal quantum number (n) had close orbits that formed a "shell" of finite thickness instead of the infinitely thin circular orbit of Bohr's model.
The existence of electron shells was first observed experimentally in Charles Barkla's and Henry Moseley's X-ray absorption studies. Barkla labeled them with the letters K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q. The origin of this terminology was alphabetic. A J series was also suspected, though later experiments indicated that the K absorption lines are produced by the innermost electrons. These letters were later found to correspond to the n-values 1, 2, 3, etc. They are used in the spectroscopic Siegbahn notation.
The physical chemist Gilbert Lewis was responsible for much of the early development of the theory of the participation of valence shell electrons in chemical bonding. Linus Pauling later generalized and extended the theory while applying insights from quantum mechanics.
The electron shells are labelled K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q; or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7; going from innermost shell outwards. Electrons in outer shells have higher average energy and travel farther from the nucleus than those in inner shells. This makes them more important in determining how the atom reacts chemically and behaves as a conductor, because the pull of the atom's nucleus upon them is weaker and more easily broken. In this way, a given element's reactivity is highly dependent upon its electronic configuration.
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