What is a metal?
What is a metal?

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

What is a metal?

2 Arrangement of atoms in metals

Most metal atoms pack closely together in a similar way to fruit on packing trays (Figure 2). This arrangement is the most efficient use of space as apples are packed as closely together as they can. Note how most of the apples are in contact with six neighbouring apples.

Described image
Figure 2  Apples on a packing tray.

But metals are three-dimensional. The layer of atoms represented by the apples in Figure 2 will be covered by other layers in a solid metal. For most metals, this three-dimensional structure can be seen in the way fruit is sometimes stacked on market stalls. A second layer of apples will fit neatly in the hollows created by the bottom layer. The third layer of apples will lie directly above the first layer. This pattern is known as a hexagonal closed packed (hcp) structure. Watch Video 1 which illustrates this structure using spheres to build a model.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1  Close packing in three dimensions. (2:46 min)

Transcript: Video 1  Close packing in three dimensions. (2:46 min)

We’ll start by building the simplest of the models, which is the hexagonal close-packed array. First, we fill a tray with transparent spheres so that the row of spheres furthest away from you contains five and the row nearest to you contains four. Next, we put on another layer of the clear spheres. You will find that these fit neatly in the hollows created by the bottom layer.
Notice that the hollows have an almost triangular shape. There are two possible positions for the second layer, covering either triangles with tips pointing away from you or over triangles with their tips pointing towards you. We’re putting the second layer of the triangles with the tips pointing away from you, but it’s an arbitrary choice. It doesn’t matter which you choose.
The second layer now has three rows of spheres - four in the first, three in the middle and four in the next. Now, we add the third layer of spheres. For hexagonal close-packing, they have to lie directly above the first layer. Looking down on the model, you will see that we can do this now by covering the triangles with the tips pointing towards you.
Layer three of the model contains five spheres. Now, look again at the hexagonal close-packed model. We have coloured a sphere in the middle of the second layer.
Count up the number that are touching it. There are three in the bottom layer. There are six in the same layer. In the layer above, there are also three that touch it - making 12 in all.
End transcript: Video 1  Close packing in three dimensions. (2:46 min)
Video 1  Close packing in three dimensions. (2:46 min)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

The ongoing arrangement of metal atoms in a three-dimensional regular ordered pattern is known in chemistry as a lattice structure.

A simple model of an atom is a central atomic nucleus with electrons arranged in shells at different distances from the nucleus. Lithium has the smallest atom of all metals. Figure 3 shows a simple representation of a lithium atom. The smaller dots represent electrons moving around the central nucleus. The large dot at the centre represents the nucleus of the lithium atom containing protons and neutrons. Moving outwards from the nucleus, you can see a region of empty space before a narrow region where there is a good chance of meeting a set of two electrons. This first shell can only contain a maximum of two electrons. Then there is more empty space before another narrow region in which up to six electrons can be found.

Described image
Figure 3 Illustration of shells in a lithium atom

Each electron carries a minute but standard amount of negative electric charge, or charge for short. Electric charge is the property of matter that causes electrical phenomena. Conventionally, chemists and physicists speak of an electron as having a charge of −1. The units do not matter in this case as the ‘−1’ is a comparative amount: one electron has a charge of −1, two electrons a charge of −2 and ten electrons a charge of −10.

However, atoms are neutral particles: that is, they carry no net charge. This means that the total negative charge of the electrons must be balanced by the total positive charge in these positive particles in the atom, so that the whole atom has a net charge of zero. These positive particles are known as protons and each one carries the same amount of charge as an electron but has the opposite sign, +1.

Each element has its own specific signature in terms of number of protons, neutrons and electrons. Lithium has 3 protons, 4 neutrons and three electrons.

  • What overall charge would an atom of lithium have?

  • One atom of lithium would have an overall charge of zero as the three positive protons will equal the negative charge of the three electrons.

  • If a nucleus of an atom was separated from the rings of electrons would it have a positive or a negative charge?

  • The nucleus would be positively charged because of the protons within it. The strength of the positive charge would depend upon the number of protons within the nucleus.

A feature of metal atoms is that the electrons in the outer shells do not remain in the proximity of a specific nucleus. In bulk metals, these electrons, rather than being associated with any particular metal atom, can be thought to be part of a shared ‘sea’ of electrons that move freely (Figure 4). These are known as delocalised electrons.

Described image
Figure 4  Positively charged nuclei (plural for nucleus) in a cloud of delocalised electrons.

Take your learning further371

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses372.

If you are new to university level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. Find out Where to take your learning next?373 You could either choose to start with an Access courses374or an open box module, which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification.

Not ready for University study then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn375 and sign up to our newsletter376 to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371