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2.11: Elements

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     Drawing of Sherlock Holmes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) (Credit: Sidney Paget; Source: in new window); License: Public Domain)

    Who is Sherlock Holmes?

    The famous fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes supposedly often made the statement "elementary, my dear Watson". In reality, the closest he ever came to that line was an exchange with Watson in the short story "The Crooked Man". Holmes demonstrated shrewd insight into Watson's activities of the day. When asked how he knew what Watson was doing, Holmes simply replies "Elementary". Regardless of exactly how stated it, Sherlock Holmes was simply referring to what the Free Dictionary defines as "relating to, or constituting the basic, essential, or fundamental part".


    An element is the simplest form of matter that has a unique set of properties. It is a pure substance that cannot be broken down into different types of substances. As of 2010, there are 118 known elements. Ninety eight of the elements are naturally occurring on earth, while the other 20 elements have been made synthetically in a lab. The names of all the elements can be found on the periodic table. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Periodic Table. (Credit: Christopher AuYeung; Source: CK-12 Foundation; License: CC BY-NC 3.0(opens in new window))

    Examples of well-known elements include oxygen, iron, and gold (see the figure below). Elements cannot be broken down into a simpler substance.  Likewise, one element cannot be chemically converted into a different element.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Chemical elements are the simplest of substances. (A) An oxygen tank like this is used by people who need breathing assistance. (B) A simple skillet can be made from cast iron. (C) Gold bars are formed and used for monetary purposes. (Credit: (A) Leon Brocard (Flickr: acme); (B) User:Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons; (C) Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited; Source: (A) in new window); (B) in new window); (C) in new window) in new window) License: (A) CC-BY 2.0; (B) Public Domain; (C) Public Domain)

    Some elements have been known for centuries (gold, silver, iron, and copper, for example), while others have been created in a lab only within the last several years. Most elements do not exist as such in nature. They are so reactive that they can be found only in combination with other materials.

    Some elements are very valuable, while others are quite inexpensive. Gold is currently worth almost $1700 per ounce. Aluminum, on the other hand, only sells for about 90 cents per pound, considerably lower than gold. Copper is worth somewhat more, selling for approximately $3.50 per pound. Platinum is very valuable at about $1650 an ounce, though not quite as expensive as gold.


    There are elements all around you, including in the air you breathe. See what elements are in the air in this simulation. 

    Video: The Chemical Elements Song

    The Chemical Elements song, sung by Tom Lehrer. At the time, there were only 102 elements discovered.


    • An element is the simplest form of matter that has a unique set of properties.
    • One element cannot be chemically converted to another element.


    1. What is an element?
    2. Give the names of any two elements.
    3. What is the name of the table that has the names of the elements?
    4. How many elements are naturally occurring?

    This page titled 2.11: Elements is shared under a CK-12 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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