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If you hear about ions you think about electricity. However this is only aspect of what are ions. Ion are basically charged particles whether they are charged atoms or molecules. These ions can interact in the medium of air or be the result of certain chemical reactions. The interactions between ions are some of the most common and important in the physical world.
To understand what are ions we need to know about the structure of atoms. Atoms are considered the most common unit of matter but they are made of even small particles. The core of the atom is called the nucleus and this is made up of a grouping of two types of subatomic particles called neutrons and protons. Neutrons have no charge and protons have a positive charge. The outer part of the atom or it’s “shell” is made up of particles called electrons. Electrons have a negative charge.
The atom is normally neutral in charge because the structure makes it necessary in its stable state to have the same number of electrons as neutrons. This causes the charges to cancel each other out. However, there are exceptions where the atom can lose or gain an electron. This is normally through interaction with other atoms in a chemical reaction. It can also happen when enough energy is applied to cause an object composed of atoms of certain element to change states of matter from a gas to a plasma.
When an atom loses an electron it gets a net positive charge. When it gains an extra electron it has a net negative charge. Molecules as mention before can also be ions if they have a net negative or positive charge. Molecules are usually compounds formed by two or more atoms of an element. Ionic molecules are formed when the creation of a molecule causes one of the atoms that make it up to lose or gain an electron. Just like the atom itself the ionic molecule will have a net charge.
One of the more interesting ionic molecules is water. Its unique configuration of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms gives it a positive charge one end and a negative charge on the other. This unique trait is said to be responsible for many of water’s unusual characteristics such as being a universal solvent.
As mentioned earlier ions are mostly observed in chemical reactions. As a matter of fact the majority of all chemical reactions involve the ionic interaction of the electrons of
different elements. This is how important compounds like salt are produced.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.