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A Mnemonic Method for Assigning

the Electronic Configurations of Atoms


Nerea lza' and Manuel Gil
Departamento de Quimica Fisica I, Facultad de Ciencias Quimicas, Universidad Complutense,
Madrid 28040, Spain
In a first-year general chemistry course, the study of
electron configurations of isolated atoms is a basic topic
(14).Besides the fundamental theories, students must
learn how to build these confirnrrations. Thev must realize
that the electron d i s t r i h ~ t i o ~ different
in
atomic orhitals
occurs i n the Dresence of a decreasine order of nuelear-attraction energy. T h e consequence>f penetration a n d
shielding is that the energies of the orbitals in a manyelectron atom in general lie in the order s < p < d < f for the
same energy level (n). Furthermore, the order of occupation of the orbitals that leads to the ground-state configuration minimizes the total energy.
Values of atomic-energy levels have been calculated (5,
6 ) as a function of the atomic number, and for the majority
of the elements, several diagrams (7, 8) have shown the
following order for electron occupation.

As an aid to memorizing this sequence, several devices


and schemes have appeared in this Journal (9-18). Most
of them are based on establishing one particular orbital
arrangement, and subsequently filling the gaps by following the arrows according to a given rule. These methods
fail to predict the exceptions to the filling order.
A careful examination of the order illustrated above allows orbitals of sublevels to be grouped i n sets each of
which is repeated once, except the 1s set. Thus, by simply
memorizing these repeating orbital sets, the electronic
configuration of any element can be determined.
Steps of the Method
This method can be applied to building configurations by
following three rules.
Allocate Atomic Orbitals to Repeating Sets.
Every set, except the first, begins with a n s orbital and
ends with a p orhital.

2s

25

--

15-

-1s
I
1

Principal Quantum Number, n


Generalized energy-level diagram for atomic orbitals that shows the
approximate sequence of energies and filling.

Comparison with energy diagrams (see t h e figure)


clearly shows that this new arrangement of orbitals gives
energy differences that are higher between orhital sets (4
and lower between the p orbital of each set and the rest of
the orbitals in that set (4.
Fill Each Subleuel.

Number Orbitals in Increasing Order


of the Principal Quantum Numbel:
If the set holds d orhitals, its energy level will he (n - I),
where n has the value of the principle quantum number for
the s and p orhitals in the same set. If the set holds f orbitals, its energy level will he (n - 21, where n has the initially established value. This rule was first formulated by
Chiang and Tseng (19) and can be simplified by the form

which gives rise to


'Author lo whom corres~ondenceshould be addressed.

Beginning a t 1s with the maximum number of electrons


allowed, continue filling until the Z value of the atomic
number of the element is reached. For example, for hafnium or unnilpentium (Z = 1051,

I t should be noted that these orbital sets correspond to the


periods of the periodic table.
The observation of electronic configurations of all elements from the periodic table shows that all exceptions to
the filling order correspond to electron switches among s,
d, or f orbitals within the same set. These electron switches
never occur among s, d, f, and p orhitals because the first
three types of orbitals have similar energies, but the enerVolume 72 Number 11 November 1995

1025

gies of p orbitals are quite different (see the figure). So,


there are no electron switches among orbitals from different sets because their energy differences are increased.
The elements chromium (Z= 241, copper (Z= 291, rhodium (Z = 451, and silver (Z = 47) with the ground electronic configurations,

orbitals always appear in each set with higher energy and a


greater gap than m the rest of the orbitals.
The exceptional configurations are limited to elements
whosevalenee shell e l e c t r o n s arein s. d. or f o r b i t a l s from the
same orbital set. No alteration in filling order occurs while p
orbitals are added to each orbital set.

Although it presents the same general limitation as


similar methods, the ease and rapidity of the present
method in the building of electronic configurations should
he of considerable help to students.

Literature Cited
are four exceptional configurations in the fourth and fifth
periods of the periodic table. The other exceptions in these
periods are 41Nb,4 2 M ~4,4 R ~and
, "Pd.

Conclusion
The improvement of our mnemonic device over other

similar methods for ~redictineelectronic confieurations of


elements is summarized below.
It is n e c e s s a r y only to draw a linear diagram. When filled to
c a p a c i t y , only the repeating orbital sets must be memorized
in order to know directly the electronic configuration. Interest in the use of mnemonic devices in c h e m i c a l education has
recently been reported (20).
Orhital arrangement within these sets affords information
an their relative energies ( e n e r g y d i f f e r e n c e s ) . Established
orbital sets are separated by wide gaps of energy, and the p

1026

Journal of Chemical Education

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