Discovery And Properties
Prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists believed that atoms were indivisible. Work by many scientists led to the nuclear model of the atom, in which protons, neutrons, and electrons make up individual atoms. Protons and neutrons are found in the nucleus, while electrons are found in a much greater volume around the nucleus. The nucleus represents less than 1% of the atom's total volume.
The proton's mass and charge have both been determined. The mass is 1.673 × 10-24 g. The charge of a proton is positive, and is assigned a value of +1. The electron has a –1 charge, and is about 2,000 times lighter than a proton. In neutral atoms, the number of protons and electrons are equal.
The number of protons (also referred to as the atomic number) determines the chemical identity of an atom. Each element in the periodic table has a unique number of protons in its nucleus. The chemical behavior of individual elements largely depends, however, on the electrons in that element. Chemical reactions involve changes in the arrangements of electrons, not in the number of protons or neutrons.
The processes involving changes in the number of protons are referred to as nuclear reactions. In essence, a nuclear reaction is the transformation of one element into another. Certain elements—both natural and artificially made—are by their nature unstable, and spontaneously break down into lighter elements, releasing energy in the process. This process is referred to as radioactivity. Nuclear power is generated by just such a process.