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Principal Quantum Number

Symbolized by the letter n, this number describes the shell that an electron resides in. An electron “shell” is a region of space around an atom's nucleus that electrons are allowed to exist in, corresponding to the stable “standing wave” patterns of de Broglie and Bohr. Electrons may “leap” from shell to shell, but cannot exist between the shell regions.

The principle quantum number must be a positive integer (a whole number, greater than or equal to 1). In other words, principle quantum number for an electron cannot be 1/2 or -3. These integer values were not arrived at arbitrarily, but rather through experimental evidence of light spectra: the differing frequencies (colors) of light emitted by excited hydrogen atoms follow a sequence mathematically dependent on specific, integer values as illustrated in Fig. 3390 previous.

Each shell has the capacity to hold multiple electrons. An analogy for electron shells is the concentric rows of seats of an amphitheater. Just as a person seated in an amphitheater must choose a row to sit in (one cannot sit between rows), electrons must “choose” a particular shell to “sit” in. As in amphitheater rows, the outermost shells are hold more electrons than the inner shells. Also, electrons tend to seek the lowest available shell, as people in an amphitheater seek the closest seat to the center stage. The higher the shell number, the greater the energy of the electrons in it.

The maximum number of electrons that any shell may hold is described by the equation 2n2, where “n” is the principle quantum number. Thus, the first shell (n=1) can hold 2 electrons; the second shell (n=2) 8 electrons, and the third shell (n=3) 18 electrons (Fig. 3391).

Principal quantum number n and maximum number of electrons per shell both predicted by 2(n2), and observed. Orbitals not to scale.

Electron shells in an atom were formerly designated by letter rather than by number. The first shell (n=1) was labeled K, the second shell (n=2) L, the third shell (n=3) M, the fourth shell (n=4) N, the fifth shell (n=5) O, the sixth shell (n=6) P, and the seventh shell (n=7) Q.

Last Update: 2010-11-19