Elements: Building Blocks of Matter

heidi Kent, Laura Nappi
  • Author
    heidi Kent

    Heidi has taught middle school science, health, and English for more than 22 years. She has a Master's Degree in General Science from North Dakota State University. She is a member of the MSTA, has chaired Professional Development and Continuing Education at the Ashby Public School.

  • Instructor
    Laura Nappi
Learn basic information about what an element is, what they are made of, how and why they are different, and how scientists have organized them into the periodic table. Updated: 12/13/2021

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What is an Element?

Elements are the tiny particles that make up matter. Science describes an element as a pure substance made of only 1 type of atom that can not be broken down further into other substances. For example, hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) are elements, but water ({eq}H_{2}O) {/eq} which is made of hydrogen and oxygen is NOT. Why? Because water can be broken down into other substances (hydrogen and oxygen). However, it is not possible to break hydrogen or oxygen down any further into other substances. This makes them elements.

Hydrogen and oxygen are made of different kinds of atoms, so they have properties that are different from each other and from the water which they can become. In fact, each element is different from all the others; just as letters combine to make words, elements combine to make the endless kinds of matter in our universe.

Some people wonder if elements and chemicals are the same. The answer is: sort of. Elements are chemicals that are made of just one kind of atom. However, chemicals can be pure substances, mixtures, compounds, etc. If something is matter, it is made up of chemicals.

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What are Elements Made of and What Do They Look Like?

Elements are made of tiny units called atoms. Within each atom are subatomic particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. The diagram below is a simplified sketch of an atom of helium (the element used to float party balloons). Atoms are made of 2 parts--a dense center and an outer, nearly empty zone around it.

The dense center of every atom of an element is called the nucleus. It is the location of the protons that carry a positive charge and the neutrons which carry no charge. Most of the mass of an element is found in the nucleus.

Zipping around outside the nucleus in what is called the electron cloud are the extremely tiny and energetic electrons. Electrons carry a negative charge. The number and location of electrons in the electron cloud determines the reactivity of an element and many of its properties. The number of protons and electrons will always be equal in stable elements


In all elements, protons and neutrons reside in the nucleus and electrons are in constant motion outside the nucleus.

Helium Atom:  Location of protons, neutrons, and electrons


Examples of Elements

Some substances like gold or helium can exist in their pure element form, but most substances are made of combinations of different elements. The sugar we add to our cereal can be broken down into elements of carbon (C), hydrogen, and oxygen. Table salt is made of the elements sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). The air we breathe is a mixture of elements like oxygen, nitrogen (N), and carbon. It is the combinations of elements that makes up the many substances in our world, as simple as water and as complex as DNA.

There are 118 elements that scientists know of in our universe; 92 are natural elements and 26 have been artificially created in labs and exist for only very short periods of time. The Periodic Table organizes all the elements handily into rows, columns, periods, and other categories based on similar properties. Each element on the table is also identified by its chemical symbol of 1-2 letters and its atomic number derived from the number of protons it has. Most periodic tables will include at least this basic information, but other versions can contain much more information.


Each element is assigned a number and unique chemical symbol of 1 or 2 letters. The rows and columns show groups of elements with similar properties.

Periodic Table of Elements


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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an element for Class 7?

The elements in Group 7 are called the halogens. They are highly reactive non-metals. They include fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astitine.

What is an element easy definition?

Elements are the smallest particle of a pure substance that can't be broken down into any smaller substance. Each element is made of a different kind of atom. There are about 92 elements that occur naturally and others that are artificially created in a lab for a total of around 118.

What does element mean in science?

An element is a pure substance made of only 1 type of atom that can not be broken down further into other substances.

What are 10 elements examples?

Elements are things like oxygen, helium, sodium, hydrogen, gold, carbon, lithium, nitrogen, uranium, copper.

Compounds and mixtures like water or stainless steel are not elements. But they are made of elements.

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