The periodic table of the chemical elements is a tabular method of displaying the chemical elements. Although precursors to this table exist, its invention is generally credited to Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Mendeleev intended the table to illustrate recurring ("periodic") trends in the properties of the elements. The layout of the table has been refined and extended over time, as new elements have been discovered, and new theoretical models have been developed to explain chemical behavior.

The periodic table is now ubiquitous within the academic discipline of chemistry, providing an extremely useful framework to classify, systematize and compare all the many different forms of chemical behavior. The table has also found wide application in physics, biology, engineering, and industry. The current standard table contains 117 elements as of January 27, 2008 (elements 1-116 and element 118).

Methods for displaying the periodic table

Standard periodic table


Alternative versions (Layout/view of the table)

Other alternative periodic tables exist.

Some versions of the table show a dark stair-step line along the metalloids. Metals are to the left of the line and non-metals to the right.


The layout of the periodic table demonstrates recurring ("periodic") chemical properties. Elements are listed in order of increasing atomic number (i.e. the number of protons in the atomic nucleus). Rows are arranged so that elements with similar properties fall into the same vertical columns ("groups"). According to quantum mechanical theories of electron configuration within atoms, each horizontal row ("period") in the table corresponded to the filling of a quantum shell of electrons. There are progressively longer periods further down the table, grouping the elements into s-, p-, d- and f-blocks to reflect their electron configuration.

In printed tables, each element is usually listed with its element symbol and atomic number; many versions of the table also list the element's atomic mass and other information, such as its abbreviated electron configuration, electronegativity and most common valence numbers.

As of 2006, the table contains 117 chemical elements whose discoveries have been confirmed. Ninety-four are found naturally on Earth, and the rest are synthetic elements that have been produced artificially in particle accelerators. Elements 43 (technetium), 61 (promethium), 93 (neptunium) and 94 (plutonium) have no stable isotopes and were first discovered synthetically; however, they were later discovered in trace amounts on earth as products of natural radioactive decay processes.

Periodicity of chemical properties

The main value of the periodic table is the ability to predict the chemical properties of an element based on its location on the table. It should be noted that the properties vary differently when moving vertically along the columns of the table than when moving horizontally along the rows.

Groups and periods

  • A group is a vertical column in the periodic table of the elements.

Groups are considered the most important method of classifying the elements. In some groups, the elements have very similar properties and exhibit a clear trend in properties down the group — these groups tend to be given trivial (unsystematic) names, e.g. the alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, halogens and noble gases. Some other groups in the periodic table display fewer similarities and/or vertical trends (for example Groups 14 and 15), and these have no trivial names and are referred to simply by their group numbers.

  • A period is a horizontal row in the periodic table of the elements.

Although groups are the most common way of classifying elements, there are some regions of the periodic table where the horizontal trends and similarities in properties are more significant than vertical group trends. This can be true in the d-block (or "transition metals"), and especially for the f-block, where the lanthanides and actinides form two substantial horizontal series of elements.

Periodic trends of groups

Modern quantum mechanical theories of atomic structure explain group trends by proposing that elements within the same group have the same electron configurations in their valence shell, which is the most important factor in accounting for their similar properties. Elements in the same group also show patterns in their atomic radius, ionization energy, and electronegativity. From top to bottom in a group, the atomic radii of the elements increase. Since there are more filled energy levels, valence electrons are found farther from the nucleus. From the top, each successive element has a lower ionization energy because it is easier to remove an electron since the atoms are less tightly bound. Similarly, a group will also see a top to bottom decrease in electronegativity due to an increasing distance between valence electrons and the nucleus.

Periodic trends of periods

Elements in the same period show trends in atomic radius, ionization energy, electron affinity, and electronegativity. Moving left to right across a period, atomic radius usually decreases. This occurs because each successive element has an added proton and electron which causes the electron to be drawn closer to the nucleus. This decrease in atomic radius also causes the ionization energy to increase when moving from left to right across a period. The more tightly bound an element is, the more energy is required to remove an electron. Similarly, electronegativity will increase in the same manner as ionization energy because of the amount of pull that is exerted on the electrons by the nucleus. Electron affinity also shows a slight trend across a period. Metals (left side of a period) generally have a lower electron affinity than nonmetals (right side of a period) with the exception of the noble gases.


Noble gases

All the elements of Group 18, the noble gases, have full valence shells. This means they do not need to react with other elements to attain a full shell, and are therefore much less reactive than other groups. Neon followed by helium are the most inert elements among noble gases, since reactivity, in this group, increases with the periods: it is possible to make heavy noble gases react since they have much larger electron shells. However, their reactivity remains very low in absolute terms.


In Group 17, known as the halogens, elements are missing just one electron each to fill their shells. Therefore, in chemical reactions they tend to acquire electrons (the tendency to acquire electrons is called electronegativity). This property is most evident for fluorine (the most electronegative element of the whole table), and it diminishes with increasing period.

As a result, all halogens form acids with hydrogen, such as hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrobromic acid and hydroiodic acid, all in the form HX. Their acidity increases with higher period, for example, with regard to iodine and fluorine, since a large I ion is more stable in solution than a small F, there is less volume in which to disperse the charge.

Transition metals

For the transition metals (Groups 3 to 12), horizontal trends across periods are often important as well as vertical trends down groups; the differences between groups adjacent are usually not dramatic. Transition metal reactions often involve coordinated species.

Lanthanides and actinides

The chemical properties of the lanthanides (elements 57–71) and the actinides (elements 89–103) are even more similar to each other than the transition metals, and separating a mixture of these can be very difficult. This is important in the chemical purification of uranium concerning nuclear power.

Structure of the periodic table

The primary determinant of an element's chemical properties is its electron configuration, particularly the valence shell electrons. For instance, any atoms with four valence electrons occupying p orbitals will exhibit some similarity. The type of orbital in which the atom's outermost electrons reside determines the "block" to which it belongs. The number of valence shell electrons determines the family, or group, to which the element belongs.

The total number of electron shells an atom has determines the period to which it belongs. Each shell is divided into different subshells, which as atomic number increases are filled in roughly this order (the Aufbau principle):

Subshell: S G F D P
1 1s
2 2s 2p
3 3s 3p
4 4s 3d 4p
5 5s 4d 5p
6 6s 4f 5d 6p
7 7s 5f 6d 7p
8 8s 5g 6f 7d 8p
Hence the structure of the table. Since the outermost electrons determine chemical properties, those with the same number of valence electrons are grouped together.

Progressing through a group from lightest element to heaviest element, the outer-shell electrons (those most readily accessible for participation in chemical reactions) are all in the same type of orbital, with a similar shape, but with increasingly higher energy and average distance from the nucleus. For instance, the outer-shell (or "valence") electrons of the first group, headed by hydrogen, all have one electron in an s orbital. In hydrogen, that s orbital is in the lowest possible energy state of any atom, the first-shell orbital (and represented by hydrogen's position in the first period of the table). In francium, the heaviest element of the group, the outer-shell electron is in the seventh-shell orbital, significantly further out on average from the nucleus than those electrons filling all the shells below it in energy. As another example, both carbon and lead have four electrons in their outer shell orbitals.

Note that as atomic number (i.e. charge on the atomic nucleus) increases, this leads to greater spin-orbit coupling between the nucleus and the electrons, reducing the validity of the quantum mechanical orbital approximation model, which considers each atomic orbital as a separate entity.

Because of the importance of the outermost shell, the different regions of the periodic table are sometimes referred to as periodic table blocks, named according to the sub-shell in which the "last" electron resides, e.g. the s-block, the p-block, the d-block, etc.

The elements Ununbium, ununtrium, ununquadium, etc. are elements that have been discovered, but so far have not been named.


In Ancient Greece, the influential Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that there were four main elements: air, fire, earth and water. All of these elements could be reacted to create another one; e.g., earth and fire combined to form lava. However, this theory was dismissed when the real chemical elements started being discovered. Scientists needed an easily accessible, well organized database with which information about the elements could be recorded and accessed. This was to be known as the periodic table.

The original table was created before the discovery of subatomic particles or the formulation of current quantum mechanical theories of atomic structure. If one orders the elements by atomic mass, and then plots certain other properties against atomic mass, one sees an undulation or periodicity to these properties as a function of atomic mass. The first to recognize these regularities was the German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner who, in 1829, noticed a number of triads of similar elements:

Some triads
Element Molar mass
chlorine 35.453 0.0032
bromine 79.904 3.1028
iodine 126.90447 4.933
calcium 40.078 1.55
strontium 87.62 2.54
barium 137.327 3.594

In 1829 Döbereiner proposed the Law of Triads: The middle element in the triad had atomic weight that was the average of the other two members. The densities of some triads followed a similar pattern. Soon other scientists found chemical relationships extended beyond triads. Fluorine was added to Cl/Br/I group; sulfur, oxygen, selenium and tellurium were grouped into a family; nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic, antimony, and bismuth were classified as another group.

This was followed by the English chemist John Newlands, who noticed in 1865 that when placed in order of increasing atomic weight, elements of similar physical and chemical properties recurred at intervals of eight, which he likened to the octaves of music, though his law of octaves was ridiculed by his contemporaries. However, while successful for some elements, Newlands' law of octaves failed for two reasons:

  1. It was not valid for elements that had atomic masses higher than Ca.
  2. When further elements were discovered, such as the noble gases (He, Ne, Ar), they could not be accommodated in his table.

Finally, in 1869 the Russian chemistry professor Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev and four months later the German Julius Lothar Meyer independently developed the first periodic table, arranging the elements by mass. However, Mendeleev plotted a few elements out of strict mass sequence in order to make a better match to the properties of their neighbors in the table, corrected mistakes in the values of several atomic masses, and predicted the existence and properties of a few new elements in the empty cells of his table. Mendeleev was later vindicated by the discovery of the electronic structure of the elements in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Earlier attempts to list the elements to show the relationships between them (for example by Newlands) had usually involved putting them in order of atomic mass. Mendeleev's key insight in devising the periodic table was to lay out the elements to illustrate recurring ("periodic") chemical properties (even if this meant some of them were not in mass order), and to leave gaps for "missing" elements. Mendeleev used his table to predict the properties of these "missing elements", and many of them were indeed discovered and fit the predictions well.

With the development of theories of atomic structure (for instance by Henry Moseley) it became apparent that Mendeleev had listed the elements in order of increasing atomic number (i.e. the net amount of positive charge on the atomic nucleus). This sequence is nearly identical to that resulting from ascending atomic mass.

In order to illustrate recurring properties, Mendeleev began new rows in his table so that elements with similar properties fell into the same vertical columns ("groups").

With the development of modern quantum mechanical theories of electron configuration within atoms, it became apparent that each horizontal row ("period") in the table corresponded to the filling of a quantum shell of electrons. In Mendeleev's original table, each period was the same length. Modern tables have progressively longer periods further down the table, and group the elements into s-, p-, d- and f-blocks to reflect our understanding of their electron configuration.

In the 1940s Glenn T. Seaborg identified the transuranic lanthanides and the actinides, which may be placed within the table, or below (as shown above).

See also


Further reading

  • Mazurs, E.G., "Graphical Representations of the Periodic System During One Hundred Years". University of Alabama Press, Alabama. 1974.
  • Bouma, J., "An Application-Oriented Periodic Table of the Elements", J. Chem. Ed., 66, 741 (1989).
  • Eric R. Scerri, The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Imyanitov, N.S., "Mathematical description of dialectic regular trends in the periodic system", Russ. J. Gen. Chem., 69, 509 (1999) [Eng].
  • Imyanitov, N.S., "Modification of Various Functions for Description of Periodic Dependences", Russ. J. Coord. Chem., 29, 46 (2003) [Eng].

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