How elements interact with one another depends on how their electrons are arranged and how many openings for electrons exist at the outermost region where electrons are present in an atom. Electrons exist at energy levels that form shells around the nucleus. The closest shell can hold up to two electrons. The closest shell to the nucleus is always filled first, before any other shell can be filled. Hydrogen has one electron; therefore, it has only one spot occupied within the lowest shell. Helium has two electrons; therefore, it can completely fill the lowest shell with its two electrons. If you look at the periodic table, you will see that hydrogen and helium are the only two elements in the first row. This is because they only have electrons in their first shell. Hydrogen and helium are the only two elements that have the lowest shell and no other shells.
The second and third energy levels can hold up to eight electrons. The eight electrons are arranged in four pairs and one position in each pair is filled with an electron before any pairs are completed.
Looking at the periodic table again (Figure 2.3), you will notice that there are seven rows. These rows correspond to the number of shells that the elements within that row have. The elements within a particular row have increasing numbers of electrons as the columns proceed from left to right. Although each element has the same number of shells, not all of the shells are completely filled with electrons. If you look at the second row of the periodic table, you will find lithium (Li), beryllium (Be), boron (B), carbon (C), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), fluorine (F), and neon (Ne). These all have electrons that occupy only the first and second shells. Lithium has only one electron in its outermost shell, beryllium has two electrons, boron has three, and so on, until the entire shell is filled with eight electrons, as is the case with neon.
Not all elements have enough electrons to fill their outermost shells, but an atom is at its most stable when all of the electron positions in the outermost shell are filled. Because of these vacancies in the outermost shells, we see the formation of chemical bonds, or interactions between two or more of the same or different elements that result in the formation of molecules. To achieve greater stability, atoms will tend to completely fill their outer shells and will bond with other elements to accomplish this goal by sharing electrons, accepting electrons from another atom, or donating electrons to another atom. Because the outermost shells of the elements with low atomic numbers (up to calcium, with atomic number 20) can hold eight electrons, this is referred to as the octet rule. An element can donate, accept, or share electrons with other elements to fill its outer shell and satisfy the octet rule.
When an atom does not contain equal numbers of protons and electrons, it is called an ion. Because the number of electrons does not equal the number of protons, each ion has a net charge. Positive ions are formed by losing electrons and are called cations. Negative ions are formed by gaining electrons and are called anions.
For example, sodium only has one electron in its outermost shell. It takes less energy for sodium to donate that one electron than it does to accept seven more electrons to fill the outer shell. If sodium loses an electron, it now has 11 protons and only 10 electrons, leaving it with an overall charge of +1. It is now called a sodium ion.
The chlorine atom has seven electrons in its outer shell. Again, it is more energy-efficient for chlorine to gain one electron than to lose seven. Therefore, it tends to gain an electron to create an ion with 17 protons and 18 electrons, giving it a net negative (–1) charge. It is now called a chloride ion. This movement of electrons from one element to another is referred to as electron transfer. As Figure 2.5 illustrates, a sodium atom (Na) only has one electron in its outermost shell, whereas a chlorine atom (Cl) has seven electrons in its outermost shell. A sodium atom will donate its one electron to empty its shell, and a chlorine atom will accept that electron to fill its shell, becoming chloride. Both ions now satisfy the octet rule and have complete outermost shells. Because the number of electrons is no longer equal to the number of protons, each is now an ion and has a +1 (sodium) or –1 (chloride) charge.