Cations form when metal atoms lose electrons and create positively charged particles. Anions, the opposite of cations, appear when nonmetal atoms gain electrons and form negative charges. The For Dummies reference website states that metal and nonmetal ions combine to form ionic compounds, such as sodium chloride, which is commonly known as table salt.
Cations lose one, two or three electrons to develop up to a plus three charge. Common elements that form a plus one charge include lithium, potassium and sodium. Prevalent atoms that lose two electrons consist of magnesium, calcium, zinc and tin. Larger atoms that drop three electrons include aluminum, iron, chromium and strontium. Similar substances organized in the periodic table behave in similar ways to form various positive ions and lose or gain the same amount of electrons.
Cations are vital to the formation of larger molecules found throughout the earth. Sodium chloride is produced by combining the cation sodium (Na) plus the anion chlorine (Cl) to form table salt (NaCl). Sodium fluoride (NaF) is commonly added to urban drinking water. Many of these ionic compounds occur naturally on Earth and are vital to life on the planet.
During electrolysis, a cation is attracted to the cathode, or positive, terminal. Electrolysis is the process by which cations and anions are separated under laboratory conditions to produce pure elements from ionic molecules.