Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

4.6: Periodic Trends- Atomic Radius

  • Page ID
    235935
  • Many events draw large numbers of people to them. Even an outdoor event can fill up so that there is not room for anyone else. The crowd capacity depends on the amount of space in the venue, and the amount of space depends on the size of the objects filling it.  More people can fit into a given space than can elephants, because elephants are larger than people. More squirrels can fit into that same space than can people for the same reason. Knowing the sizes of objects to be dealt with is important when deciding how much space is needed.

    Atomic Radius

    The size of atoms is important to explanations of the behavior of atoms or compounds. One way to express the size of atoms is by use of atomic radius. This data helps scientists to understand why some molecules fit together, and why other molecules have parts that get too crowded under certain conditions.

    The size of an atom is defined by the edge of its orbital. However, orbital boundaries are fuzzy, and variable under different conditions. In order to standardize the measurement of atomic radii, the distance between the nuclei of two identical atoms bonded together is measured. The atomic radius is defined as one-half the distance between the nuclei of identical atoms that are bonded together.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The atomic radius \(\left( r \right)\) of an atom can be defined as one half the distance \(\left( d \right)\) between two nuclei in a diatomic molecule.

    Atomic radii have been measured for elements. The units for atomic radii are picometers, equal to \(10^{-12}\) meters. As an example, the internuclear distance between the two hydrogen atoms in an \(\ce{H_2}\) molecule is measured to be \(74 \: \text{pm}\). Therefore, the atomic radius of a hydrogen atom is \(\frac{74}{2} = 37 \: \text{pm}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Atomic radii of the representative elements measured in picometers.

    Periodic Trend

    The atomic radius of atoms generally decreases from left to right across a period. There are some small exceptions, such as the oxygen radius being slightly greater than the nitrogen radius. Within a period, protons are added to the nucleus as electrons are being added to the same principal energy level. These electrons are gradually pulled closer to the nucleus because of its increased positive charge. Since the force of attraction between nuclei and electrons increases, the size of the atoms decreases. The effect lessens as one moves further to the right in a period, because of electron-electron repulsions that would otherwise cause the atom's size to increase.

    Group Trend

    The atomic radius of atoms generally increases from top to bottom within a group. As the atomic number increases down a group, there is again an increase in the positive nuclear charge. However, there is also an increase in the number of occupied principal energy levels. Higher principal energy levels consist of orbitals which are larger in size than the orbitals from lower energy levels. The effect of the greater number of principal energy levels outweighs the increase in nuclear charge, and so atomic radius increases down a group.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A graph of atomic radius plotted versus atomic number. Each successive period is shown in a different color. As the atomic number increases within a period, the atomic radius decreases.

    Summary

    • Atomic radius is determined as half the distance between the nuclei of two identical atoms bonded together.
    • The atomic radius of atoms generally decreases from left to right across a period.
    • The atomic radius of atoms generally increases from top to bottom within a group.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.

    • Was this article helpful?