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Electron Waves and the Uncertainty Principle

Author: John Hutchinson

We now have a fairly detailed description of the energies of the electrons in atoms. What we do not have is a model which tells us what factors determine the energy of an electron in a shell or subshell. Nor do we have a model to explain why these energies are similar but different for electrons in different subshells.

A complete answer to these questions requires a development of the quantum theory of electron motion in atoms. Because the postulates of this quantum theory cannot be readily developed from experimental observations, we will concern ourselves with a few important conclusions only.

The first important conclusion is that the motion of an electron in an atom is described by a wave function. Interpretation of the wave motion of electrons is a very complicated proposition, and we will only deal at present with a single important consequence, namely the uncertainty principle. A characteristic of wave motion is that, unlike a particle, the wave does not have a definite position at a single point in space. By contrast, the location of a particle is precise. Therefore, since an electron travels as a wave, we must conclude that we cannot determine the precise location of the electron in an atom. This is, for our purposes, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. We can make measurements of the location of the electron, but we find that each measurement results in a different value. We are then forced to accept that we cannot determine the precise location. We are allowed, however, to determine a probability distribution for where the electron is observed.

This probability distribution is determined by quantum mechanics. The motion of the electron in a hydrogen atom is described by a function, often called the wave function or the electron orbital and typically designated by the symbol Ψ. Ψ is a function of the position of the electron r, and quantum mechanics tells us that (|Ψ|)2 is the probability of observing the electron at the location r.

Each electron orbital has an associated constant value of the electronic energy, En, in agreement with our earlier conclusions. In fact, quantum mechanics exactly predicts the energy shells and the hydrogen atom spectrum we observe. The energy of an electron in an orbital is determined primarily by two characteristics of the orbital. The first, rather intuitive, property determines the average potential energy of the electron: an orbital which has substantial probability in regions of low potential energy will have a low total energy. By Coulombís law, the potential energy arising from nucleus-electron attraction is lower when the electron is nearer the nucleus. In atoms with more than one electron, electron-electron repulsion also contributes to the potential energy, as Coulombís law predicts an increase in potential energy arising from the repulsion of like charges.

A second orbital characteristic determines the contribution of kinetic energy, via a more subtle effect arising out of quantum mechanics. As a consequence of the uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics predicts that, the more confined an electron is to a smaller region of space, the higher must be its average kinetic energy. Since we cannot measure the position of electron precisely, we define the uncertainty in the measurement as Δx. Quantum mechanics also tells us that we cannot measure the momentum of an electron precisely either, so there is an uncertainty Δp in the momentum. In mathematical detail, the uncertainty principle states that these uncertainties are related by an inequality:

ΔxΔp >= h/4π [8]

where h is Planckís constant, 6.62◊10-34 (Js) (previously seen in Einsteinís equation for the energy of a photon). This inequality reveals that, when an electron moves in a small area with a correspondingly small uncertainty Δx, the uncertainty in the momentum Δp must be large. For Δp to be large, the momentum must also be large, and so must be the kinetic energy.

Therefore, the more compact an orbital is, the higher will be the average kinetic energy of an electron in that orbital. This extra kinetic energy, which can be regarded as the confinement energy, is comparable in magnitude to the average potential energy of electron-nuclear attraction. Therefore, in general, an electron orbital provides a compromise, somewhat localizing the electron in regions of low potential energy but somewhat delocalizing it to lower its confinement energy.

Last Update: 2011-02-16