Although all of the atoms of a specific element have the same number of protons (and the same number of electrons in uncharged atoms), they do not necessarily all have the same number of neutrons. For example, when the hydrogen atoms in a normal sample of hydrogen gas are analyzed, we find that of every 5000 atoms, 4999 have 1 proton and 1 electron, but 1 in 5000 of these atoms has 1 proton, 1 neutron, and 1 electron. This form of hydrogen is often called deuterium. Moreover, if you collected water from the cooling pond of a nuclear power plant, you would find that a very small fraction of its hydrogen atoms have 1 proton, 2 neutrons, and 1 electron (Figure 1). This last form of hydrogen, often called tritium, is unstable and therefore radioactive.
All of these atoms are hydrogen atoms because they have the chemical characteristics of hydrogen. For example, they all combine with oxygen atoms to form water. The chemical characteristics of an atom are determined by its number of protons (which is equal to the number of electrons if the atom is uncharged) and not by its number of neutrons. Because atoms are assigned to elements based on their chemical characteristics, an element can be defined as a substance whose atoms have the same number of protons. When an element has two or more species of atoms, each with the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons, the different species are called isotopes.
- This article is an excerpt from the preparatory chemistry text An Introduction to Chemistry by Mark Bishop.