Transition Metals vs. Main Group Elements: Properties and Differences

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  • 0:06 Introduction
  • 1:37 Main Group Elements
  • 3:54 Transition Metals
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kristin Born

Kristin has an M.S. in Chemistry and has taught many at many levels, including introductory and AP Chemistry.

Which is better: to be steadfast and consistent or to be a colorful chameleon? This lesson compares and contrasts the main group elements and the transition metals. Then make your own decision!


The transition metals are found in groups 3 through 12 of the periodic table.
Transition Metals

You can thank the main group elements for a lot of things. They are the major elements found in living organisms (that's you). They make up most of the Earth, solar system and even universe! And they play important roles in industry and economics. So what are these elements and what are some of their features?

Just like locations on a map, different areas of the periodic table have elements with different traits. In this lesson we are going to compare and contrast two of the largest areas on the periodic table: the main group elements and the transition metals. Both of these large regions have distinct features and qualities, but before we go into their characteristics, let's locate these regions on the table. First off, the main group elements consist of the first two columns (the hydrogen and beryllium columns) and the last six columns (the boron through helium columns). Using correct periodic table terminology, we would say these are elements found in groups 1, 2 and 13 through 18. The transition metals are found in groups 3 through 12. You may notice that we are leaving out that 'island' of elements down below. The top row of that island makes up the lanthanides and the bottom row makes up the actinides. We are leaving these out because they are neither main group elements nor transition metals.

Main Group Elements

The main group elements are by far the most abundant elements - not only on Earth, but in the entire universe. For this reason, they are sometimes called the 'representative elements.' The main group elements are found in the s- and p-blocks, meaning that their electron configurations are going to end in s or p. Remember the s- and p-blocks are responsible for providing the valence electrons, those super-important electrons that are involved in chemical bonding. Both the electron configurations and the number of valence electrons are very predictable as we move across the main group elements. Group 1 has elements with one valence electron, group 2 has elements with two, group 13 has elements with three valence electrons and so on to group 18, with eight valence electrons.

Non-metallic gases, with the exception of the noble gases, tend to gain electrons.
Non-Metallic Gases

Let's use sodium as an example of how the main group elements are chemically predictable. Sodium, which has one valence electron, will almost always exist in one of two forms: its unstable, electrically neutral, metallic form (with the one valence electron), or in its stable, positively charged, ionic form (without that one valence electron). That's it. Just two forms of sodium. This predictability in the number of valence electrons creates predictability in chemical bonding - something you will be very thankful for later on. Who doesn't like a little consistency in chemistry?

Aside from the predictability of bonding and their high abundances, these elements couldn't be more different from each other. Because the main group elements consist of both metals and nonmetals, their physical properties are going to be quite different. For example, elements on the left (in groups 1, 2 and 13) are going to be solid, very metallic and tend to lose electrons, whereas many of the elements on the right are non-metallic gases that will tend to gain electrons. Well, the full shells of the noble gases will cause them to not want to gain electrons, but the rest of the non-metals would like to.

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