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Electron shell

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Example of a sodium electron shell model which has three shells

An electron shell[1] is the outside part of an atom around the atomic nucleus. It is where the electrons are, and is a group of atomic orbitals with the same value of the principal quantum number n.

Electron shells have one or more electron sub-shells, or sub-levels. These sub-levels have two or more orbitals with the same angular momentum quantum number. Electron shells make up the electron configuration of an atom. The number of electrons that can be in a shell is equal to [math]2n^2[/math].

The name for electron shells comes from the Bohr model, in which groups of electrons were believed to go around the nucleus at certain distances, so that their orbits formed "shells". This term was presented by the Danish physicist Niels Henrik David Bohr.

Valence shell

The valence shell is the outermost shell of an atom in its normal state, which contains the electrons most likely to be used in reactions involving the atom and bonding with other atoms. The outermost shell of an ion is not commonly termed valence shell. Electrons in the valence shell are referred to as valence electrons.

In a noble gas, an atom tends to have 8 electrons in its outer shell (except helium, which is only able to fill its shell with 2 electrons). This serves as the model for the octet rule which is mostly applicable to main-group elements of the second and third periods. In terms of atomic orbitals, the electrons in the valence shell are distributed 2 in the single s orbital and 2 in each of the three p orbitals.

For coordination complexes containing transition metals, the valence shell consists of electrons in these s and p orbitals, as well as up to 10 additional electrons, distributed as 2 into each of 5 d orbitals, to make a total of 18 electrons in a complete valence shell for such a compound. This is referred to as the eighteen electron rule.

Possible Number of Electrons in shells 1-7
Shell Electrons
1 2
2 8
3 18
4 32
5 32
6 18
7 8


Electron sub-shells are identified by the letters s, p, d, f, g, h, i, etc., corresponding to the azimuth quantum numbers (l-values) 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. Each shell can hold up to 2, 6, 10, 14, and 18 electrons respectively, or 4l + 2 electrons in each sub-shell. The notation 's', 'p', 'd', and 'f' originate from a past system of talking about spectral lines as "sharp", "principal", "diffuse", or "fundamental", based on their observed fine structure. When the first four types of orbitals were described, they were associated with these spectral line types, but there were no other names. The letters 'g', 'h', and so on, were used because they followed the alphabet.


  1. also known as a main energy level
  • Tipler, Paul & Ralph Llewellyn (2003). Modern Physics (4th ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

    Template-specific style sheet:

    ISBN 0-7167-4345-0