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2.7.1: Atomic Models of the Twentieth Century

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Compare different theories regarding electron arrangement within the atom.
    • Understand the concept of quantized energy.
    • Draw modified Bohr models for every element up through atomic number 20.
    • Identify the valence electrons in a Bohr model.
    • Realize the Roman numeral group numbers on the periodic table represent valence electrons.

    Plum Pudding and Bohr Models

    In the early twentieth century, scientists attempted to construct plausible models of the atom. One of first theories was proposed by J.J. Thomson, the physicist who discovered the electron. Thomson believed that the atom contained both positive and negative charges. He was not aware of the existence of a third neutrally charged particle (neutron). Using a plum pudding (today's comparison could be chocolate chip cookie dough) dessert for a visual representation, Thomson stated that the positive mass could be represented by the actual pudding component of the dessert. The negative species inside each atom would be scattered randomly like the plums in pudding (or chocolate chips in cookie dough).

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Plum pudding Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Thomson's depiction of a plum pudding atom.

    By 1911, Ernest Rutherford discovered a centrally located positive core of the atom. Rutherford's nucleus would house the positive protons while the negative electrons would remain outside this core. Chemists and physicists immediately abandoned the plum pudding model and looked to describe electron placement in more detail. In 1915, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr proposed a new model of the atom that involved electrons orbiting the nucleus. Stationary states or energy levels would be fixed distances from the nucleus (see below). In this model, these energy levels or shells would be represented by the letter "n."

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Bohr model of the atom illustrating levels of electrons.

    This planetary model of the atom was attractive to scientists because it was similar to something with which they were already familiar, namely the solar system. Unfortunately, there was a serious flaw in the planetary model. It was already known that when a charged particle (such as an electron) moves in a curved path, it gives off some form of light and loses energy in doing so. This is, after all, how we produce TV signals. If the electron circling the nucleus in an atom loses energy, it would necessarily have to move closer to the nucleus as it loses energy and would eventually crash into the nucleus. These difficulties cast a shadow on the planetary model and indicated that, eventually, it would have to be replaced.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Scientists who attended the 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons. Niels Bohr is seated in the second row on the far right. Image taken from:

    Energy Levels

    Bohr's electrons reside in energy levels or shells. These levels are denoted with the letter "n" and are associated with a precise energy value (units would be in Joules). Shells (or levels) closer to the nucleus would require smaller amounts of energy for an electron while orbits farther from the nucleus would require the electrons to have a greater amount of energy.

    Bohr hypothesized that the only way electrons could gain or lose energy would be to move from one energy level to another, thus gaining or losing precise amounts of energy. The energy levels are quantized, meaning that only specific amounts are possible. To imagine this phenomenon, note the ladder in the image below. Ladders contain rungs that are spaced at specified distances from the ground. On the ladder, an individual must remain on one of the rungs. He or she cannot step between the rungs and remain on the ladder successfully. The lowest rung required the least amount of energy for a person to exert. Moving to higher levels on the ladder would involve inputting more energy or effort.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The concept of energy levels can be view within the context of a ladder. Each allowed electronic state has an energy. For an atom, the rungs are not equally spaced.

    In the Bohr atom, the rungs represent energy levels. Electrons remain in these levels until they absorb or emit a quantum of energy. When an electron gains energy, then it will move further away from the nucleus to a higher energy level. Upon emission of energy (see the red arrow in the image below), the electron will fall back to a lower energy level. The energy absorbed or emitted during these transitions is quantized.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): In Bohr's Model of the atom, electrons absorb energy to move to a higher level and release energy to move to lower levels. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Kurzon).

    Drawing Bohr Models

    Although not completely correct, the Bohr model can give us a visual representation of electronic levels in atoms. Bohr used the formula 2n2 to calculate maximum number of electrons that could be housed in an energy level or shell. In this formula, "n" represents the particular energy level. When substituting an integer above the number zero, one can obtain maximum electrons for each shell. For example, the first energy level would be n =1 and this level could hold 2(1)2 = 2 maximum electrons. The second energy level could accommodate 2(2)2 = 8 electrons. In drawing Bohr diagrams, different amounts of shells are required to store a specific atom's electrons. Looking at a Bohr diagram for the carbon atom, one can see that two energy levels/shells are required for its six electrons.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Electron shell diagram for carbon, the 6th element in the periodic table of elements. (CC BY-SA 2.0(UK); Pumbaa)

    Bohr diagrams for a variety of elements are illustrated in chart below . When determining the number of electrons of an atom, remember to refer to the atomic number (the whole number) on the periodic table.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Bohr models of different groups/families of elements from the periodic table.

    In this course, we will be using a modified Bohr model. In other words, we will limit each shell after n=1 to a maximum of eight total electrons. We will also be limited in drawing Bohr diagrams of only the first twenty elements on the periodic table. This process will allow us to identify the valence or active electrons of these particular elements. Watch this video of your professor drawing Bohr models and identifying valence electrons.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Drawing BOhr Diagrams

    Draw modified Bohr diagrams for

    1. nitrogen
    2. calcium
    3. sulfur
    Answer a


    Bohr model of nitrogen: (CC BY-SA 2.0 uk; Greg Robson);

    Answer b


    Bohr model of calcium: (CC BY-SA 2.0 uk;Greg Robson):

    Answer b


    Bohr model of sulfur: (CC BY-SA 2.0 uk; Greg Robson).

    Valence electrons are located in the highest energy level of an atom. When drawing a Bohr diagram, the valence electrons would be present in the outermost electronic level/shell (furthest away from the nucleus). An atom can have from one to eight valence electrons. In the bonding process, atoms will either gain, lose, or share valence electrons to become more stable. A quick method of checking valence electrons is to refer to an element's group number (in Roman numerals) on the periodic table. Even if you cannot draw a Bohr diagram (Bohr's are limited to elements with atomic numbers (Z)< 21), you can still determine valence electrons by looking to the group number.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\): Identifying Valence Electrons

    From the Bohr Diagrams constructed in Example \(\PageIndex{1}\), how many valence electrons are on each atom.

    Answer a


    Answer b


    Answer c


    Quantum Theory

    The Bohr Theory failed to explain why the electron did not spiral into the nucleus after a certain amount of revolutions around the nucleus. In addition, this theory had difficulty diagramming multi-electron systems (atoms or ions with more than one electron). For these reasons, scientists turned to the quantum mechanical theory. Since 1927, this has been the working theory that most chemistry courses use (we will not use this theory in our course). For a more detailed explanation of quantum mechanics, click here.


    • The Bohr model postulates that electrons orbit the nucleus at fixed energy levels.
    • Orbits further from the nucleus exist at higher energy levels.
    • When electrons return to a lower energy level, they emit energy in the form of light.
    • Bohr's model suggests each atom has a set of unchangeable energy levels and electrons in the electron cloud of that atom must be in one of those energy levels..


    • Energy levels: Possible orbits that an electron can have in the electron cloud of an atom.
    • Quantized: requiring or possessing specific amounts of energy.

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