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This is a background article. For the physiological significance of ions see: Electrolytes. For ION see: Inferior olivary nucleus

An ion is an atom, group of atoms, or subatomic particle with a net electric charge. The simplest ions are the electron (single negative charge, e), proton (a hydrogen ion, H+, positive charge), and alpha particle (helium ion, He2+, consisting of two protons and two neutrons) . A negatively charged ion, which has more electrons in its electron shells than it has protons in its nuclei, is known as an anion, for it is attracted to anodes; a positively-charged ion, which has fewer electrons than protons, is known as a cation (pronounced cat-eye-on), for it is attracted to cathodes. An ion with a single atom is called a monatomic ion, and an ion with more than one is called a polyatomic ion. Larger ions containing many atoms are called molecular ions. The process of converting into ions and the state of being ionized is called ionization. The recombining of ions and electrons to form neutral atoms is called recombination. A polyatomic anion that contains oxygen is sometimes known as an oxyanion.

Atomic and polyatomic ions are denoted by a superscript with the sign of the net electric charge and the number of electrons lost or gained, if more than one. For example: H+, SO42−.

A collection of non-aqueous gas-like ions, or even a gas containing a proportion of charged particles, is called a plasma, often called the fourth state of matter because its properties are quite different from solids, liquids, and gases. Astrophysical plasmas containing predominently a mixture of electrons and protons, may make up as much as 99.9% of the visible universe [1]. The positively charged proton is about 1836 times more massive than the negatively charged electron.

Ionization potential

Main article: Ionization potential

The energy required to detach an electron in its lowest energy state from an atom or molecule of a gas with less net electric charge is called the ionization potential, or ionization energy. The nth ionization energy of an atom is the energy required to detach its nth electron after the first n − 1 electrons have already been detached.

Each successive ionization energy is markedly greater than the last. Particularly great increases occur after any given block of atomic orbitals is exhausted of electrons. For this reason, ions tend to form in ways that leave them with full orbital blocks. For example, sodium has one valence electron, in its outermost shell, so in ionized form it is commonly found with one lost electron, as Na+. On the other side of the periodic table, chlorine has seven valence electrons, so in ionized form it is commonly found with one gained electron, as Cl. Francium has the lowest ionization energy of all the elements and fluorine has the greatest. The ionization energy of metals is generally much lower than the ionization energy of nonmetals, which is why metals will generally lose electrons to form positively-charged ions while nonmetals will generally gain electrons to form negatively-charged ions.

A neutral atom contains an equal number of Z protons in the nucleus and Z electrons in the electron shell. The electrons' negative charges thus exactly cancel the protons' positive charges. In the simple view of the Free electron model, a passing electron is therefore not attracted to a neutral atom and cannot bind to it. In reality, however, the atomic electrons form a cloud into which the additional electron penetrates, thus being exposed to a net positive charge part of the time. Furthermore, the additional charge displaces the original electrons and all of the Z + 1 electrons rearrange into a new configuration.


In negative ions, anions, the interaction of each electron with the positive nucleus is strongly suppressed; they are very loosely bound systems. Contrary to all other atomic electrons, the extraneous electron in negative ions is initially not bound by the Coulomb interaction, but by polarization of the neutral atom. Due to the short range of this interaction, negative ions have no Rydberg series, but only a few, if any, bound excited states.

Formation of polyatomic and molecular ions

Polyatomic and molecular ions are often formed by the combination of elemental ions such as H+ with neutral molecules or by the loss of such elemental ions from neutral molecules. Many of these processes are acid-bases reactions, as first theorized by German scientist Lauren Gaither. A simple example of this is the ammonium ion NH4+ which can be formed by ammonia NH3 accepting a proton, H+. Ammonia and ammonium have the same number of electrons in essentially the same electronic configuration but differ in protons. The charge has been added by the addition of a proton (H+) not the addition or removal of electrons. The distinction between this and the removal of an electron from the whole molecule is important in large systems because it usually results in much more stable ions with complete electron shells. For example NH3·+ is not stable because of an incomplete valence shell around nitrogen and is in fact a radical ion.

Other ions

A dianion is a species which has two negative charges on it. For example, the dianion of pentalene is aromatic. A zwitterion is an ion with a net charge of zero, but has both a positive and negative charge on it. Radical ions are ions that contain an odd number of electrons and are mostly very reactive and unstable.


Ions were first theorized by Michael Faraday around 1830, to describe the portions of molecules that travel either to an anode or to a cathode. However, the mechanism by which this was achieved was not described until 1884 by Svante August Arrhenius in his doctoral dissertation to the University of Uppsala. His theory was initially not accepted but his dissertation won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903.


The word ion is a name given by Michael Faraday, from Greek ἰόν, neutral present participle of ἰέναι, "to go", thus "a goer". So; anion, ἀνιόν, and cation, κατιόν, mean "(a thing) going up" and "(a thing) going down", respectively; and anode, ἄνοδος, and cathode, κάθοδος, mean "a going up" and "a going down", respectively, from ὁδός, "way," or "road."


Ions are essential to life. Sodium, potassium, calcium and other ions play an important role in the cells of living organisms, particularly in cell membranes.

Common Ion Tables

Common Cations
Common Name Formula Historic Name
Aluminum Al3+
Ammonium NH4+
Barium Ba2+
Beryllium Be2+
Caesium Cs+
Calcium Ca2+
Chromium(II) Cr2+ Chromous
Chromium(III) Cr3+ Chromic
Chromium(VI) Cr6+ Chromyl
Cobalt(II) Co2+ Cobaltous
Cobalt(III) Co3+ Cobaltic
Copper(I) Cu+ Cuprous
Copper(II) Cu2+ Cupric
Helium He2+ (Alpha particle)
Hydrogen H+ (Proton)
Hydronium H3O+
Iron(II) Fe2+ Ferrous
Iron(III) Fe3+ Ferric
Lead(II) Pb2+ Plumbous
Lead(IV) Pb4+ Plumbic
Lithium Li+
Magnesium Mg2+
Manganese(II) Mn2+ Manganous
Manganese(III) Mn3+ Manganic
Manganese(IV) Mn4+ Manganyl
Manganese(VII) Mn7+
Mercury(I) Hg22+ Mercurous
Mercury(II) Hg2+ Mercuric
Nickel(II) Ni2+ Nickelous
Nickel(III) Ni3+ Nickelic
Nitronium NO2+
Potassium K+
Silver Ag+
Sodium Na+
Strontium Sr2+
Tin(II) Sn2+ Stannous
Tin(IV) Sn4+ Stannic
Zinc Zn2+
Common Anions
Formal Name Formula Alt. Name
Simple Anions
(Electron) e
Arsenide As3−
Bromide Br
Chloride Cl
Fluoride F
Hydride H
Iodide I
Nitride N3−
Oxide O2−
Phosphide P3−
Sulfide S2−
Peroxide O22−
Arsenate AsO43−
Arsenite AsO33−
Borate BO33−
Bromate BrO3
Hypobromite BrO
Carbonate CO32−
Hydrogen Carbonate HCO3 Bicarbonate
Chlorate ClO3
Perchlorate ClO4
Chlorite ClO2
Hypochlorite ClO
Chromate CrO42−
Dichromate Cr2O72−
Iodate IO3
Nitrate NO3
Nitrite NO2
Phosphate PO43−
Hydrogen Phosphate HPO42−
Dihydrogen Phosphate H2PO4
Phosphite PO33−
Sulfate SO42−
Thiosulfate S2O32−
Hydrogen Sulfate HSO4 Bisulfate
Sulfite SO32−
Hydrogen Sulfite HSO3 Bisulfite
Anions from Organic Acids
Acetate C2H3O2
Formate HCO2
Oxalate C2O42−
Hydrogen Oxalate HC2O4 Bioxalate
Other Anions
Hydrogen Sulfide HS Bisulfide
Telluride Te2−
Amide NH2
Cyanate OCN
Thiocyanate SCN
Cyanide CN
Hydroxide OH
Permanganate MnO4

See also

External links

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