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Electronic orbitals and energy levels: Are they the same thing?

Are they the same thing?

It can be easy to confuse energy levels and electronic orbitals.

Understanding what actually occurs to an electron when it is promoted to a higher energy level is an interesting piece of information that can go amiss.

Electrical orbitals
Image - Felix Benz (

Nearest neighbour distance r and distance between one excited ion and the nearest ion in the ground state r exÀgr for both only few excited ions (a) or a larger number of excited ions (b).

What is an excited ion?

When discussing the excitation of ions in a flame photometer, an electron is promoted to a higher energy level which, in turn, makes the ion what is known as ‘excited’.

This ‘excited’ ion is then ready to decay back to its ground state and emit or radiate a packet of energy in the form of a photon.

The photon’s wavelength and frequency are derived from the difference in the decay from the excited state to the ground.

What happens to the energy levels?

The energy levels which can be occupied are static for each element, but they can be altered by factors including dative covalent bonds.

An electron cannot partially reach a higher energy level and then drop back down to a lower one; it must have the full requirement of the energy required for the jump to an increased level of energy.

This energy requirement is what is known as the activation energy.

Can you increase the energy of an electron?

Electrons also have a shell in which they are spatially located, such as the S, P, D and F orbitals.

However, increasing a S electron to a higher energy state does not push this electron spatially out of its shell.

Increasing an electron’s energy only increases is angular momentum.

Does the temperature increase as a result?

It would be easy to think from this explanation that temperature, which is a form of energy expressed through the vibration of molecules, should also increase in these set energy levels. This is not that case.

This is because electrons being promoted to a higher energy level are not the only form of energy that a molecule can store.

Other forces such as the molecule’s momentum as it moves and collides with other molecules is a form in which energy can be transferred between them.

Just to add more confusion into dealing with how to picture the electrons and how they exist within our current scientific knowledge, it should be remembered that electrons cannot be fully categorised as either a particle or as a wave.

This will be discussed in an upcoming blog post continuing our topic of electrons and their vital importance to practically every physical object we could imagine.


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