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Recently, we covered metallic bonding in chemistry, and frankly, I understood little.

I understand that:

  • Metals bond to each other via metallic bonding
  • Electricity can flow via free or delocalized electrons

But, I do not understand why the metal atoms turn into ions and delocalize the electrons, why don't the metal atoms stay as atoms?

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When electricity flows, the electrons are considered "free" only because there are more electrons than there should be, and because the transition metals, such as iron, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, gold etc. are willing to transiently accept and give up electrons from the d-orbitals of their valence shell.

Transition metals are defined in part by their stability in a wide range of "oxidation states"; that is, in several combinations of having too many or too few electrons compared to protons. This is thought to be because of the d orbital in their valence shells. Compared to the s and p orbitals at a particular energy level, electrons in the d shell are in a relatively high energy state, and by that token they have a relatively "loose" connection with their parent atom; it doesn't take much additional energy for these electrons to be ejected from one atom and go zooming through the material, usually to be captured by another atom in the material (though it is possible for the electron to leave the wire entirely). This impetus can be caused by many things, from mechanical impact to chemical reactions to electromagnetic radiation (aka light, though not all of it visible); antennas work to capture radio frequencies, because the light at those frequencies induces an electric current in the wire of the antenna. Now, in the absence of a continuous force keeping the electron in this higher energy state, the electron (and the metal atoms) will naturally settle into a state of equilibrium. Electricity is generated when just such a force is acting on the metal, giving energy to the electrons in the d orbital and forcing them to move in a certain direction.

This impetus can come from many sources, as discussed, be it the movement of a magnet within a coil of wire, or a chemical redox reaction in a battery creating a relative imbalance of electrons at each of two electrodes. The end result is that the electrons, given additional energy from this voltage source, are ejected from their "parent" atom and are captured by another. The "holes" left behind by these electrons are filled by other electrons coming in behind them from further back in the circuit. Thus, the energy provided by the voltage source is carried along the wire by the transfer of electrons.

The analogy typically made is to the flow of water, and it generally holds in many circumstances; the "voltage source" can be thought of as being like a pump or a reservoir, from which water flows through pipes, and the amount of water and the pressure it's placed under (by the pump or by gravity) can be harnessed to do work, before draining back to a lower reservoir. The pipes are similar to wires in many ways; the larger the diameter, and the smoother the inside of the pipe, the more and the faster water can flow through it (equivalent in many ways to the thickness and conductivity of the metal wire), and when under enough pressure (high enough voltage), the pipes will actually expand slightly and hold more water than they would at low pressure (this is a property of wires and other electrical conductors called "capacitance"; the ability to store a charge while under voltage and to discharge it after the voltage is released).

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  • $\begingroup$ If it loses an electron, "usually to be captured by another atom in the material (though it is possible for the electron to leave the wire entirely)," where does it go? Has it been "captured" by some other element we just don't know which one at that time? $\endgroup$ – johnny Sep 23 '16 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Hard to say; it's difficult but not impossible for the electron to leave the Earth entirely and go zooming out into space. That would be just fine; the Sun bathes the Earth in bajillions of charged particles every second. Much more likely, our ejected electron will be captured by other materials within a rough line of sight of the atom from which it was ejected. That will affect the relative electron balance of that material alongside everything else, creating a static charge, but sooner or later the charges will equalize and the excess energy is released as a photon, likely heat. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jan 25 '18 at 14:32
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The valence electrons in the outermost orbit of an atom, get excited on availability of energy. They overcome the binding force to become free and move anywhere within the boundaries of the solid. Thus they contribute to conduction

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Re: Why the metal atoms turn into ions and delocalize the electrons, why don't the metal atoms stay as atoms?

This is sort of asking why is water wet?

By definition if the atoms in an elemental sample have delocalized electrons (so that the sample will conduct electricity) then the element is a metal. If there are no delocalized electrons, then the sample won't conduct electricity and the element is a nonmetal.

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  • $\begingroup$ This isn't quite true. There are non-metallic elemental conductors - graphite immediately springs to mind. $\endgroup$ – bon Oct 21 '15 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ I'm more asking why Salt doesn't give up its electrons but steel does. (I know Salt is an Ionic compound and behaves differently to a metal, it was just an example, but the point still stands) $\endgroup$ – Deep Oct 22 '15 at 20:25
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In the view of physics,there are many atoms in the given element for instance copper ,in which has no energy gap between valence band and conduction band .when external energy applied to the given element.the free electrons will more energy and gets free from valence band and jump in to conduction band and moves.

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