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# 1.3: The Classification of Matter


Skills to Develop

• Describe the fundamental properties of each physical state of matter: solid, liquid, and gas
• Define and give examples of atoms and molecules
• Classify matter as an element, or compound; pure substance, or a mixture; a homogenous mixture, or heterogenous mixture
• Classify matter as chemical or physical
• Classify properties of matter as chemical, or physical; an extensive or intensive
• Distinguish between mass and weight

Matter is defined as anything that occupies space and has mass, and it is all around us. Solids and liquids are more obviously matter: We can see that they take up space, and their weight tells us that they have mass. Gases are also matter; if gases did not take up space, a balloon would stay collapsed rather than inflate when filled with gas.

Solids, liquids, and gases are the three states of matter commonly found on earth (Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$). A solid is rigid and possesses a definite shape. A liquid flows and takes the shape of a container, except that it forms a flat or slightly curved upper surface when acted upon by gravity. (In zero gravity, liquids assume a spherical shape.) Both liquid and solid samples have volumes that are very nearly independent of pressure. A gas takes both the shape and volume of its container.

A fourth state of matter, plasma, occurs naturally in the interiors of stars. A plasma is a gaseous state of matter that contains appreciable numbers of electrically charged particles (Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$). The presence of these charged particles imparts unique properties to plasmas that justify their classification as a state of matter distinct from gases. In addition to stars, plasmas are found in some other high-temperature environments (both natural and man-made), such as lightning strikes, certain television screens, and specialized analytical instruments used to detect trace amounts of metals.

Video $$\PageIndex{1}$$: In a tiny cell in a plasma television, the plasma emits ultraviolet light, which in turn causes the display at that location to appear a specific color. The composite of these tiny dots of color makes up the image that you see. Watch this video to learn more about plasma and the places you encounter it.

Some samples of matter appear to have properties of solids, liquids, and/or gases at the same time. This can occur when the sample is composed of many small pieces. For example, we can pour sand as if it were a liquid because it is composed of many small grains of solid sand. Matter can also have properties of more than one state when it is a mixture, such as with clouds. Clouds appear to behave somewhat like gases, but they are actually mixtures of air (gas) and tiny particles of water (liquid or solid).

The mass of an object is a measure of the amount of matter in it. One way to measure an object’s mass is to measure the force it takes to accelerate the object. It takes much more force to accelerate a car than a bicycle because the car has much more mass. A more common way to determine the mass of an object is to use a balance to compare its mass with a standard mass.

Although weight is related to mass, it is not the same thing. Weight refers to the force that gravity exerts on an object. This force is directly proportional to the mass of the object. The weight of an object changes as the force of gravity changes, but its mass does not. An astronaut’s mass does not change just because she goes to the moon. But her weight on the moon is only one-sixth her earth-bound weight because the moon’s gravity is only one-sixth that of the earth’s. She may feel “weightless” during her trip when she experiences negligible external forces (gravitational or any other), although she is, of course, never “massless.”

The law of conservation of matter summarizes many scientific observations about matter: It states that there is no detectable change in the total quantity of matter present when matter converts from one type to another (a chemical change) or changes among solid, liquid, or gaseous states (a physical change). Brewing beer and the operation of batteries provide examples of the conservation of matter (Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$). During the brewing of beer, the ingredients (water, yeast, grains, malt, hops, and sugar) are converted into beer (water, alcohol, carbonation, and flavoring substances) with no actual loss of substance. This is most clearly seen during the bottling process, when glucose turns into ethanol and carbon dioxide, and the total mass of the substances does not change. This can also be seen in a lead-acid car battery: The original substances (lead, lead oxide, and sulfuric acid), which are capable of producing electricity, are changed into other substances (lead sulfate and water) that do not produce electricity, with no change in the actual amount of matter.

Although this conservation law holds true for all conversions of matter, convincing examples are few and far between because, outside of the controlled conditions in a laboratory, we seldom collect all of the material that is produced during a particular conversion. For example, when you eat, digest, and assimilate food, all of the matter in the original food is preserved. But because some of the matter is incorporated into your body, and much is excreted as various types of waste, it is challenging to verify by measurement.

## Atoms and Molecules

An atom is the smallest particle of an element that has the properties of that element and can enter into a chemical combination. Consider the element gold, for example. Imagine cutting a gold nugget in half, then cutting one of the halves in half, and repeating this process until a piece of gold remained that was so small that it could not be cut in half (regardless of how tiny your knife may be). This minimally sized piece of gold is an atom (from the Greek atomos, meaning “indivisible”)

The first suggestion that matter is composed of atoms is attributed to the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, who developed their ideas in the 5th century BCE. However, it was not until the early nineteenth century that John Dalton (1766–1844), a British schoolteacher with a keen interest in science, supported this hypothesis with quantitative measurements. Since that time, repeated experiments have confirmed many aspects of this hypothesis, and it has become one of the central theories of chemistry. Other aspects of Dalton’s atomic theory are still used but with minor revisions (details of Dalton’s theory are provided in the chapter on atoms and molecules).

An atom is so small that its size is difficult to imagine. One of the smallest things we can see with our unaided eye is a single thread of a spider web: These strands are about 1/10,000 of a centimeter (0.0001 cm) in diameter. Although the cross-section of one strand is almost impossible to see without a microscope, it is huge on an atomic scale. A single carbon atom in the web has a diameter of about 0.000000015 centimeter, and it would take about 7000 carbon atoms to span the diameter of the strand. To put this in perspective, if a carbon atom were the size of a dime, the cross-section of one strand would be larger than a football field, which would require about 150 million carbon atom “dimes” to cover it. (Figure $$\PageIndex{5}$$) shows increasingly close microscopic and atomic-level views of ordinary cotton.

An atom is so light that its mass is also difficult to imagine. A billion lead atoms (1,000,000,000 atoms) weigh about $$3 \times 10^{−13}$$ grams, a mass that is far too light to be weighed on even the world’s most sensitive balances. It would require over 300,000,000,000,000 lead atoms (300 trillion, or 3 × 1014) to be weighed, and they would weigh only 0.0000001 gram.

It is rare to find collections of individual atoms. Only a few elements, such as the gases helium, neon, and argon, consist of a collection of individual atoms that move about independently of one another. Other elements, such as the gases hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and chlorine, are composed of units that consist of pairs of atoms (Figure $$\PageIndex{6}$$). One form of the element phosphorus consists of units composed of four phosphorus atoms. The element sulfur exists in various forms, one of which consists of units composed of eight sulfur atoms. These units are called molecules. A molecule consists of two or more atoms joined by strong forces called chemical bonds. The atoms in a molecule move around as a unit, much like the cans of soda in a six-pack or a bunch of keys joined together on a single key ring. A molecule may consist of two or more identical atoms, as in the molecules found in the elements hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur, or it may consist of two or more different atoms, as in the molecules found in water. Each water molecule is a unit that contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Each glucose molecule is a unit that contains 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms. Like atoms, molecules are incredibly small and light. If an ordinary glass of water were enlarged to the size of the earth, the water molecules inside it would be about the size of golf balls.

## Classifying Matter

We can classify matter into several categories. Two broad categories are mixtures and pure substances. A pure substance has a constant composition. All specimens of a pure substance have exactly the same makeup and properties. Any sample of sucrose (table sugar) consists of 42.1% carbon, 6.5% hydrogen, and 51.4% oxygen by mass. Any sample of sucrose also has the same physical properties, such as melting point, color, and sweetness, regardless of the source from which it is isolated.

We can divide pure substances into two classes: elements and compounds. Pure substances that cannot be broken down into simpler substances by chemical changes are called elements. Iron, silver, gold, aluminum, sulfur, oxygen, and copper are familiar examples of the more than 100 known elements, of which about 90 occur naturally on the earth, and two dozen or so have been created in laboratories.

Pure substances that can be broken down by chemical changes are called compounds. This breakdown may produce either elements or other compounds, or both. Mercury(II) oxide, an orange, crystalline solid, can be broken down by heat into the elements mercury and oxygen (Figure $$\PageIndex{7}$$). When heated in the absence of air, the compound sucrose is broken down into the element carbon and the compound water. (The initial stage of this process, when the sugar is turning brown, is known as caramelization—this is what imparts the characteristic sweet and nutty flavor to caramel apples, caramelized onions, and caramel). Silver(I) chloride is a white solid that can be broken down into its elements, silver and chlorine, by absorption of light. This property is the basis for the use of this compound in photographic films and photochromic eyeglasses (those with lenses that darken when exposed to light).

The properties of combined elements are different from those in the free, or uncombined, state. For example, white crystalline sugar (sucrose) is a compound resulting from the chemical combination of the element carbon, which is a black solid in one of its uncombined forms, and the two elements hydrogen and oxygen, which are colorless gases when uncombined. Free sodium, an element that is a soft, shiny, metallic solid, and free chlorine, an element that is a yellow-green gas, combine to form sodium chloride (table salt), a compound that is a white, crystalline solid.

A mixture is composed of two or more types of matter that can be present in varying amounts and can be separated by physical changes, such as evaporation (you will learn more about this later). A mixture with a composition that varies from point to point is called a heterogeneous mixture. Italian dressing is an example of a heterogeneous mixture (Figure $$\PageIndex{8a}$$). Its composition can vary because we can make it from varying amounts of oil, vinegar, and herbs. It is not the same from point to point throughout the mixture—one drop may be mostly vinegar, whereas a different drop may be mostly oil or herbs because the oil and vinegar separate and the herbs settle. Other examples of heterogeneous mixtures are chocolate chip cookies (we can see the separate bits of chocolate, nuts, and cookie dough) and granite (we can see the quartz, mica, feldspar, and more).

A homogeneous mixture, also called a solution, exhibits a uniform composition and appears visually the same throughout. An example of a solution is a sports drink, consisting of water, sugar, coloring, flavoring, and electrolytes mixed together uniformly (Figure $$\PageIndex{8b}$$). Each drop of a sports drink tastes the same because each drop contains the same amounts of water, sugar, and other components. Note that the composition of a sports drink can vary—it could be made with somewhat more or less sugar, flavoring, or other components, and still be a sports drink. Other examples of homogeneous mixtures include air, maple syrup, gasoline, and a solution of salt in water.

Although there are just over 100 elements, tens of millions of chemical compounds result from different combinations of these elements. Each compound has a specific composition and possesses definite chemical and physical properties by which we can distinguish it from all other compounds. And, of course, there are innumerable ways to combine elements and compounds to form different mixtures. The overall organization of matter and the methods used to separate mixtures are summarized in Figure $$\PageIndex{6}$$.

Example $$\PageIndex{1}$$

Identify each substance as a compound, an element, a heterogeneous mixture, or a homogeneous mixture (solution).

1. filtered tea
2. freshly squeezed orange juice
3. a compact disc
4. aluminum oxide, a white powder that contains a 2:3 ratio of aluminum and oxygen atoms
5. selenium

Given: a chemical substance

Asked for: its classification

Strategy:

1. Decide whether a substance is chemically pure. If it is pure, the substance is either an element or a compound. If a substance can be separated into its elements, it is a compound.
2. If a substance is not chemically pure, it is either a heterogeneous mixture or a homogeneous mixture. If its composition is uniform throughout, it is a homogeneous mixture.

Solution

1. A Tea is a solution of compounds in water, so it is not chemically pure. It is usually separated from tea leaves by filtration. B Because the composition of the solution is uniform throughout, it is a homogeneous mixture.
2. A Orange juice contains particles of solid (pulp) as well as liquid; it is not chemically pure. B Because its composition is not uniform throughout, orange juice is a heterogeneous mixture.
3. A A compact disc is a solid material that contains more than one element, with regions of different compositions visible along its edge. Hence a compact disc is not chemically pure. B The regions of different composition indicate that a compact disc is a heterogeneous mixture.
4. A Aluminum oxide is a single, chemically pure compound.
5. A Selenium is one of the known elements.

Exercise $$\PageIndex{1}$$

Identify each substance as a compound, an element, a heterogeneous mixture, or a homogeneous mixture (solution).

1. white wine
2. mercury
3. ranch-style salad dressing
4. table sugar (sucrose)
Answer A

solution

Answer B

element

Answer C

heterogeneous mixture

Answer D

compound

## Physical and Chemical Properties of Matter

The characteristics that enable us to distinguish one substance from another are called properties. A physical property is a characteristic of matter that is not associated with a change in its chemical composition. Familiar examples of physical properties include density, color, hardness, melting and boiling points, and electrical conductivity. We can observe some physical properties, such as density and color, without changing the physical state of the matter observed. Other physical properties, such as the melting temperature of iron or the freezing temperature of water, can only be observed as matter undergoes a physical change. A physical change is a change in the state or properties of matter without any accompanying change in its chemical composition (the identities of the substances contained in the matter). We observe a physical change when wax melts, when sugar dissolves in coffee, and when steam condenses into liquid water (Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$). Other examples of physical changes include magnetizing and demagnetizing metals (as is done with common antitheft security tags) and grinding solids into powders (which can sometimes yield noticeable changes in color). In each of these examples, there is a change in the physical state, form, or properties of the substance, but no change in its chemical composition.

The change of one type of matter into another type (or the inability to change) is a chemical property. Examples of chemical properties include flammability, toxicity, acidity, reactivity (many types), and heat of combustion. Iron, for example, combines with oxygen in the presence of water to form rust; chromium does not oxidize (Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$). Nitroglycerin is very dangerous because it explodes easily; neon poses almost no hazard because it is very unreactive.

To identify a chemical property, we look for a chemical change. A chemical change always produces one or more types of matter that differ from the matter present before the change. The formation of rust is a chemical change because rust is a different kind of matter than the iron, oxygen, and water present before the rust formed. The explosion of nitroglycerin is a chemical change because the gases produced are very different kinds of matter from the original substance. Other examples of chemical changes include reactions that are performed in a lab (such as copper reacting with nitric acid), all forms of combustion (burning), and food being cooked, digested, or rotting.

Properties of matter fall into one of two categories. If the property depends on the amount of matter present, it is an extensive property. The mass and volume of a substance are examples of extensive properties; for instance, a gallon of milk has a larger mass and volume than a cup of milk. The value of an extensive property is directly proportional to the amount of matter in question. If the property of a sample of matter does not depend on the amount of matter present, it is an intensive property. Temperature is an example of an intensive property. If the gallon and cup of milk are each at 20 °C (room temperature), when they are combined, the temperature remains at 20 °C. As another example, consider the distinct but related properties of heat and temperature. A drop of hot cooking oil spattered on your arm causes brief, minor discomfort, whereas a pot of hot oil yields severe burns. Both the drop and the pot of oil are at the same temperature (an intensive property), but the pot clearly contains much more heat (extensive property).

While many elements differ dramatically in their chemical and physical properties, some elements have similar properties. We can identify sets of elements that exhibit common behaviors. For example, many elements conduct heat and electricity well, whereas others are poor conductors. These properties can be used to sort the elements into three classes: metals (elements that conduct well), nonmetals (elements that conduct poorly), and metalloids (elements that have properties of both metals and nonmetals).

The periodic table is a table of elements that places elements with similar properties close together (Figure $$\PageIndex{5}$$). You will learn more about the periodic table as you continue your study of chemistry.

## Glossary

atom
smallest particle of an element that can enter into a chemical combination
chemical change
change producing a different kind of matter from the original kind of matter
chemical property
behavior that is related to the change of one kind of matter into another kind of matter
compound
pure substance that can be decomposed into two or more elements
element
substance that is composed of a single type of atom; a substance that cannot be decomposed by a chemical change
extensive property
property of a substance that depends on the amount of the substance
gas
state in which matter has neither definite volume nor shape
heterogeneous mixture
combination of substances with a composition that varies from point to point
homogeneous mixture
(also, solution) combination of substances with a composition that is uniform throughout
intensive property
property of a substance that is independent of the amount of the substance
liquid
state of matter that has a definite volume but indefinite shape
law of conservation of matter
when matter converts from one type to another or changes form, there is no detectable change in the total amount of matter present
mass
fundamental property indicating amount of matter
matter
anything that occupies space and has mass
mixture
matter that can be separated into its components by physical means
molecule
bonded collection of two or more atoms of the same or different elements
physical change
change in the state or properties of matter that does not involve a change in its chemical composition
physical property
characteristic of matter that is not associated with any change in its chemical composition
plasma
gaseous state of matter containing a large number of electrically charged atoms and/or molecules
pure substance
homogeneous substance that has a constant composition
solid
state of matter that is rigid, has a definite shape, and has a fairly constant volume
weight
force that gravity exerts on an object

## Summary

Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. The basic building block of matter is the atom, the smallest unit of an element that can enter into combinations with atoms of the same or other elements. In many substances, atoms are combined into molecules. On earth, matter commonly exists in three states: solids, of fixed shape and volume; liquids, of variable shape but fixed volume; and gases, of variable shape and volume. Under high-temperature conditions, matter also can exist as a plasma. Most matter is a mixture: It is composed of two or more types of matter that can be present in varying amounts and can be separated by physical means. Heterogeneous mixtures vary in composition from point to point; homogeneous mixtures have the same composition from point to point. Pure substances consist of only one type of matter. A pure substance can be an element, which consists of only one type of atom and cannot be broken down by a chemical change, or a compound, which consists of two or more types of atoms.

Matter can be classified according to physical and chemical properties. Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. The three states of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. A physical change involves the conversion of a substance from one state of matter to another, without changing its chemical composition. Most matter consists of mixtures of pure substances, which can be homogeneous (uniform in composition) or heterogeneous (different regions possess different compositions and properties). Pure substances can be either chemical compounds or elements. Compounds can be broken down into elements by chemical reactions, but elements cannot be separated into simpler substances by chemical means. The properties of substances can be classified as either physical or chemical. Scientists can observe physical properties without changing the composition of the substance, whereas chemical properties describe the tendency of a substance to undergo chemical changes (chemical reactions) that change its chemical composition. Physical properties can be intensive or extensive. Intensive properties are the same for all samples; do not depend on sample size; and include, for example, color, physical state, and melting and boiling points. Extensive properties depend on the amount of material and include mass and volume. The ratio of two extensive properties, mass and volume, is an important intensive property called density.

## Contributors and Attributions

1.3: The Classification of Matter is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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