Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
transition metal, any of various chemical elements that have valence electrons—i.e., electrons that can participate in the formation of chemical bonds—in two shells instead of only one. While the term transition has no particular chemical significance, it is a convenient name by which to distinguish the similarity of the atomic structures and resulting properties of the elements so designated. They occupy the middle portions of the long periods of the periodic table of elements between the groups on the left-hand side and the groups on the right. Specifically, they form Groups 3 (IIIb) through 12 (IIb).
General properties of the group
The most striking similarities shared by the 24 elements in question are that they are all metals and that most of them are hard, strong, and lustrous, have high melting and boiling points, and are good conductors of heat and electricity. The range in these properties is considerable; therefore the statements are comparative with the general properties of all the other elements.
Many of the elements are technologically important: titanium, iron, nickel, and copper, for example, are used structurally and in electrical technology. Second, the transition metals form many useful alloys, with one another and with other metallic elements. Third, most of these elements dissolve in mineral acids, although a few, such as platinum, silver, and gold, are called “noble”—that is, are unaffected by simple (nonoxidizing) acids.
Without exception, the elements of the main transition series (i.e., excluding the lanthanoids and actinoids as specified below) form stable compounds in two or more formal oxidation states.
The transition metals may be subdivided according to the electronic structures of their atoms into three main transition series, called the first, second, and third transition series, and two inner transition series, called the lanthanoids and the actinoids.
The first main transition series begins with either scandium (symbol Sc, atomic number 21) or titanium (symbol Ti, atomic number 22) and ends with zinc (symbol Zn, atomic number 30). The second series includes the elements yttrium (symbol Y, atomic number 39) to cadmium (symbol Cd, atomic number 48). The third series extends from lanthanum (symbol La, atomic number 57) to mercury (symbol Hg, atomic number 80). These three main transition series are included in the set of 30 elements often called the d-block transition metals. Because scandium, yttrium, and lanthanum actually do not form compounds analogous to those of the other transition metals and because their chemistry is quite homologous to that of the lanthanoids, they are excluded from the present discussion of the main transition metals. Similarly, because zinc, cadmium, and mercury exhibit few of the properties characteristic of the other transition metals, they are treated separately (see zinc group element). The remaining d-block transition metals and some of their characteristic properties are listed in the Table.
|symbol||atomic number||atomic mass||density (grams per cubic centimetre, 20 °C)||melting point (°C)||boiling point (°C)|
|1st main series||titanium||Ti||22||47.867||4.54||1,668||3,287|
|2nd main series||zirconium||Zr||40||91.224||6.51||1,855||4,409|
|3rd main series||hafnium||Hf||72||178.49||13.31||2,233||4,603|
The first of the inner transition series includes the elements from cerium (symbol Ce, atomic number 58) to lutetium (symbol Lu, atomic number 71). These elements are called the lanthanoids (or lanthanides) because the chemistry of each closely resembles that of lanthanum. Lanthanum itself is often regarded as one of the lanthanoids. The actinoid series consists of 15 elements from actinium (symbol Ac, atomic number 89) to lawrencium (symbol Lr, atomic number 103). These inner transition series are covered under rare-earth element and actinoid element. For elements 104 and higher, see transuranium element.
The relative locations of the transition metals in the periodic table and their chemical and physical properties can best be understood by considering their electronic structures and the way in which those structures vary as atomic numbers increase.
Atomic orbitals of the hydrogen atom
As noted earlier, the electrons associated with an atomic nucleus are localized, or concentrated, in various specific regions of space called atomic orbitals, each of which is characterized by a set of symbols (quantum numbers) that specify the volume, the shape, and orientation in space relative to other orbitals. An orbital may accommodate no more than two electrons. The energy involved in the interaction of an electron with the nucleus is determined by the orbital that it occupies, and the electrons in an atom distribute themselves among the orbitals in such a way that the total energy is minimum. Thus, by electronic structure, or configuration, of an atom is meant the way in which the electrons surrounding the nucleus occupy the various atomic orbitals available to them. The simplest configuration is the set of one-electron orbitals of the hydrogen atom. The orbitals can be classified, first, by principal quantum number, and the orbitals have increasing energy as the principal quantum number increases from 1 to 2, 3, 4, etc. (The sets of orbitals defined by the principal quantum numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., are often referred to as shells designated K, L, M, N, etc.) For principal quantum number 1 there is but a single type of orbital, called an s orbital. As the principal quantum number increases, there are an increasing number of different types of orbitals, or subshells, corresponding to each: s, p, d, f, g, etc. Moreover, the additional orbital types each come in larger sets. Thus, there is but one s orbital for each principal quantum number, but there are three orbitals in the set designated p, five in each set designated d, and so on. For the hydrogen atom, the energy is fully determined by which orbital the single electron occupies. It is especially notable that the energy of the hydrogen atom is determined solely by the principal quantum number of the orbital occupied by the electron (except for some small effects that are not of concern here); that is, in hydrogen, the electron configurations of the third shell, for example, are equi-energic (of the same energy, whichever one the electron occupies), which is not the case with any of the other atoms, all of which contain two or more electrons.
Atomic orbitals of multi-electron atoms
To understand the electron configurations of other atoms, it is customary to employ the Aufbau (German: “building up”) principle, the basis of which is that, to achieve a multi-electron configuration, the required number of electrons must be added to the orbitals one at a time, filling the most stable orbitals first, until the total number has been added. Thus, in “building up” the periodic table, one progresses from one element to the next by adding one proton to the nucleus and one electron to the atomic region outside the nucleus. There is one restriction upon this conceptualization, namely, the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that only two electrons may occupy each orbital. Thus there can be no more than two electrons in any s orbital, six electrons in any set of p orbitals, ten electrons in any set of d orbitals, etc. In carrying out this process, however, one cannot simply use the ordering of electron orbitals that is appropriate to the hydrogen atom. As electrons are added they interact with each other as well as with the nucleus, and as a result the presence of electrons in some orbital causes the energy of an electron entering another orbital to be different from what it would be if this electron were present alone. The overall result of these interelectronic interactions (sometimes referred to as shielding) is that the relative order of the various atomic orbitals is different in many-electron atoms from that in the hydrogen atom; in fact, it changes continuously as the number of electrons increases.
As multi-electronic atoms are built up, the various subshells s, p, d, f, g, etc. of a principal quantum number cease to be equi-energic; they all drop, although not by equal amounts, to lower energies. Overall lowering of energy occurs because the shielding from the nuclear charge that an electron in a particular orbital is given by all of the other electrons in the atom is not sufficient to prevent a steady increase in the effect that the charge in the nucleus has on that electron as the atomic number increases. In other words, each electron is imperfectly shielded from the nuclear charge by the other electrons. In addition the different types of orbitals in each principal shell, because of their different spatial distributions, are shielded to different degrees by the core of electrons beneath them; accordingly, although all of them decrease in energy, they decrease by different amounts, and thus their relative order in energy continuously changes. In order to specify the electron configuration of a particular atom, it is necessary to use the order of orbitals appropriate to the specific value of the atomic number of that atom. The behaviour of the various d and f orbitals is to be especially noted in regard to where the transition metals occur in the periodic table.
The argon atom (atomic number 18) has an electron configuration 1s22s22p63s23p6 (i.e., it has two electrons in the s orbital of the first shell; two in the s and six in the p orbitals of the second shell; two in the s and six in the p orbitals of the third shell: this expression often is abbreviated [Ar] especially in specifying the configurations of elements between argon and krypton, because it represents a common part of the configurations of all these elements). The 3d orbitals are more shielded from the nuclear charge than is the 4s orbital, and, consequently, the latter orbital has lower energy. The next electrons to be added enter the 4s orbital in preference to the 3d or 4p orbitals. The two elements following argon in the periodic table are potassium, with a single 4s electron, and calcium, with two 4s electrons. Because of the presence of the 4s electrons, the 3d orbitals are less shielded than the 4p orbitals; therefore, the first regular transition series begins at this point with the element scandium, which has the electron configuration [Ar]4s23d1. Through the next nine elements, in increasing order of atomic number, electrons are added to the 3d orbitals until, at the element zinc, they are entirely filled and the electron configuration is [Ar]3d104s2. The 4p orbitals are then the ones of lowest energy, and they become filled through the next six elements, the sixth of which is the next noble gas, krypton, with the electron configuration 1s22s22p63s23p64s23d104p6, or [Kr].
Throughout the next period the pattern of variation of the orbital energies is similar to that immediately preceding. When the configuration of the noble gas, krypton, has been achieved, the 5s orbital is more stable than the 4d orbitals. The next two electrons therefore enter the 5s orbital, but then the 4d orbitals fall to lower energy than the 5p orbitals, and the second regular transition series commences with the element yttrium. Electrons continue to be added to the 4d orbitals until those orbitals are entirely filled at the position of the element cadmium, which has an electron configuration [Kr]4d105s2. The next six electrons enter the 5p orbitals until another noble gas configuration is attained at the element xenon. Analogously to the two preceding periods, the next two electrons are added to the next available orbital, namely, the 6s orbital, producing the next two elements, cesium and barium. At this point, however, the ordering of orbitals becomes more complex than it previously had been, because there are now unfilled 4f orbitals as well as the 5d orbitals, and the two sets have approximately the same energy. In the next element, lanthanum (atomic number 57), an electron is added to the 5d orbitals, but the immediately following element, cerium (atomic number 58), has two electrons in the 4f orbitals and none in the 5d orbitals. Through the next 12 elements the additional electrons enter the 4f orbitals, although the 5d orbitals are of only slightly higher energy. This set of elements, spanning the range from lanthanum, where the 4f orbitals were still vacant or about to be filled, through lutetium, in which the 4f orbitals are completely filled by 14 electrons, makes up the lanthanoids, mentioned above.
At this point the next available orbitals are the 5d orbitals, and the elements hafnium through gold, the third regular transition series, correspond to the successive filling of these 5d orbitals. Following this series there are again p orbitals (6p) to be filled, and when this is accomplished the noble gas radon is reached.
If two atoms are close together, some of their orbitals may overlap and participate in the formation of molecular orbitals. Electrons that occupy a molecular orbital interact with the nuclei of both atoms: if this interaction results in a total energy less than that of the separated atoms, as is the case if the orbital lies mainly in the region between the two nuclei, the orbital is said to be a bonding orbital and its occupancy by electrons constitutes a covalent bond that links the atoms together in compound formation and in which the electrons are said to be shared. If the occupation of an orbital by electrons raises the energy of the system, as is the case if the orbital lies mainly outside the region between the two nuclei, that orbital is said to be antibonding; the presence of electrons in such orbitals tends to offset the attractive force derived from the bonding electrons.
A bonding or an antibonding molecular orbital may be disposed along the line passing through the two nuclei, in which case it is designated by the Greek letter σ (sigma); or it may occupy regions approximately parallel to that line and be designated π (pi).