Electron Orbital: Definition, Shells & Shapes

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  • 0:01 Shells and Orbitals
  • 2:22 Shapes of Orbitals
  • 3:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nissa Garcia

Nissa has a masters degree in chemistry and has taught high school science and college level chemistry.

In this lesson, we will talk about electron shells and the orbitals within them. We'll also explore the different shapes of orbitals and when we're finished, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Shells and Orbitals

The earth and other planets revolve around the sun. In the same way, we can compare the sun to the nucleus of an atom, and the planets revolving around it as electrons. However, unlike the planets revolving around the sun, the electrons don't strictly follow a set path around the nucleus. Electrons move in every direction, but they are limited to their own area, or the orbit that the electron follows, which is what we call shells, as illustrated in this figure.

Shells around the nucleus are occupied by electrons

Each shell, n, is labeled as a number, and is numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. The number increases as each shell gets further away from the nucleus. These numbers represent energy level, n. These energy levels increase as it gets farther from the nucleus, so the higher the n, the higher the energy.

Shells are divided into subshells. There are four types of subshells. Namely, s, p, d, and f. If your shell is n = 1, then the energy level is 1 and it has 1 subshell. If the n = 2, then it has 2 subshells. In this figure (see video), if n = 1, there is only one subshell, and that is s. When n = 2, there are 2 subshells, and these are s and p. If n = 3, there are 3 subshells, and these are s, p, and d. If n = 4, there are 4 subshells, and those are s, p, d, and 'f. If you refer to the figure, each box on the shell zooms in and shows how many subshells there are.

Each of these subshells (s, p, d and f) can hold specific maximum numbers of electrons: s = 2, p = 6, d = 10, and f = 14. These subshells are further divided into orbitals. Orbitals are regions within an atom that the electron will most likely occupy. Each subshell has a specific number of orbitals: s = 1 orbital, p = 3 orbitals, d = 5 orbitals, and f = 7 orbitals. One orbital can contain a maximum number of two electrons. In short, now that we have been acquainted and re-introduced to the terms, shells, subshells, and orbitals, we can now discuss the shapes of each orbital.

Shapes of Orbitals

Just like each home has its own design and layout, electrons reside in orbitals that have their own unique shapes. Each subshell (s, p, d, f), has a specific number of orientations that their orbitals can have in space. This is determined by the magnetic quantum number, ml, which tells us how many orientations an orbital can have. This table shows how many orientations each subshell can have.

How many orientations each subshell

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