Molecular Monday: Superatoms

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Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays. On the first Monday of the month, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe, both in reality and in science fiction. Today, we’re talking about:

SUPERATOMS

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a superatom!

mr06-superatom

Okay, Superman isn’t the right reference to make for this post. I should probably make a reference to the Power Rangers, or perhaps Captain Planet. “When your powers combine, I am Superatom!”

Superatoms vs. Molecules

Atoms combining together is nothing new. That’s called a molecule. You could say that a superatom is basically just a molecule that acts like a giant atom.

In normal molecules, each atom gets to hold on to its own electron cloud, more or less. Yes, the atoms do share electrons. Yes, some molecular structures allow electrons to travel freely between atoms. Yes, sometimes an atom ends up losing an electron and never gets it back.

But for the most part, each atom still has its own unique electron cloud or electron shell structure around it, and therefore each atom still retains its own distinct chemical identity on the periodic table of elements.

In a superatom, something wildly different happens. An entirely new electron cloud forms, not around any individual atoms but around the molecule as a whole. This supercloud even has layers or shells, and it can form chemical bonds, just like the electron cloud around an ordinary atom would.

So Much for the Periodic Table

Because superatoms have their own electron clouds and can form chemical bonds with other atoms—or other superatoms—we can use them to create new molecules: molecules that would not be possible using just the hundred-plus elements on the periodic table.

So if you’re a chemist or an engineer (or a science fiction writer) and you can’t find the chemical element you need on the periodic table, you now have more options. You might be able to find (or invent) a super-element to do the job instead.

P.S.: I wonder if Star Trek’s dilithium might be a super-element that incorporates two lithium atoms.

8 Responses to Molecular Monday: Superatoms

  1. Hello, just came across your blog. Cool stuff, as I am specially interested in atoms and molecules. Thanks. John

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. This is a new concept I’d never heard of before. I suppose the nuclei remain separate (so this isn’t a form of cold fusion or anything)? I wonder what conditions lead to their creation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      As I understand it, the nuclei do remain separate, so there’s no cold fusion involved. It also sounded to me like certain superatoms can form in nature, but I’m sure that’s rather unusual. Most of them are probably made in laboratories. This is something that I’m hoping to do more research on.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kirov099 says:

    Really awesome, and could definitely come in handy for sci fi writing. I was also not familiar with this, so it is a pretty interesting concept. I’ll have to do some research now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Scott Levine says:

    Thanks for this post. Interesting stuff. I’m not a chemistry guy. How’s a superatom different from an isotope?

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      So basically, isotopes matter more for nuclear physics than for chemistry. Carbon-13 has one more neutron in its nucleus than carbon-12, but they both have the same structure of electron shells around them. And it’s the structure of these electron shells that determines an atom’s chemical reactivity.

      With a superatom, you have more than one atomic nucleus in the center. The structure of the electron shells around these multiple nuclei are distinctly different than the shells that would form around an individual nucleus.

      And since the structure of the electron shells are different, the chemical reactivity of a superatom are different. That means we can use them to cause chemical reactions or to build chemical structures that would not be possible using the normal atoms from the periodic table.

      Liked by 1 person

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