Difference between Shell, Subshell and Orbital in Simple Words

Shell, Subshell and Orbital


By “shell,” we simply mean the path taken by electrons as they orbit the nucleus of an atom.

A shell of electrons can be visualised as an orbit around the nucleus of an atom. Because each shell can only accommodate a given number of electrons, each shell is connected with a specific range of electron energy; hence, each shell must be filled before electrons may be added to an outer shell. The outermost shell electrons determine the chemical characteristics of an atom .

The electron shells are labelled K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q, or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in order from the innermost to the outermost shell. Inner shell electrons have lower average energy and travel farther from the nucleus than outer shell electrons. As a result, they play a greater role in defining how an atom responds chemically and functions as a conductor, as the force exerted by the nucleus is less and more easily broken. Thus, the reactivity of a given element is strongly reliant on its electronic arrangement.

Valence Electrons

The valence shell is the outermost shell of an atom in its uncombined state, which includes the electrons most responsible for determining the nature of any reactions involving the atom and the bonding connections it has with other atoms. Valence electrons are atom-bound electrons that can participate in the formation of a chemical bond; in a single covalent bond, each atom contributes one valence electron to form a shared pair. The presence of valence electrons can determine the chemical characteristics of an element and its ability to form chemical bonds. A valence electron can only exist in the outermost electron shell of a main group element.

A closed shell of valence electrons tends to render an atom chemically inert. Atoms having one or two extra valence electrons compared to a closed shell are highly reactive because the extra valence electrons are easily removed to create a positive ion. Due to a tendency to either gain the missing valence electrons (thus generating a negative ion) or to share valence electrons, atoms having one or two fewer valence electrons than a closed shell are also extremely reactive (thereby forming a covalent bond).

Similarly to an electron in an inner shell, a valence electron can absorb or emit photon-based energy. Atomic excitation is the process whereby an increase in energy causes an electron to move (jump) to the outer shell. Or, the electron can escape from the valence shell of its linked atom to produce a positive ion; this is ionisation. When an electron loses energy (and hence emits a photon), it can travel to an inner shell that is not completely occupied.

The number of valence electrons of an element can be calculated by the group (vertical column) it belongs to in the periodic table.


When talking about electron shells, the term “subshell” simply refers to the path that an electron takes while staying within the same shell.

Atomic Orbitals

The wave-like motion of electrons can be described by a mathematical function called the orbital.

There are four different types of orbitals, each with a distinct form and indicated by the letters s, p, d, and f. The s and p orbitals are taken into account since they are the most prevalent in chemical and biological chemistry. With the nucleus at its centre, an s-orbital is spherical, a p-orbital is dumbbell-shaped, and four of the five d orbitals are cloverleaf-shaped. The fifth d orbital resembles an elongated dumbbell with a doughnut encircling its centre. The orbitals of an atom are grouped into distinct shells or layers.

Atomic Orbitals Geometrical Shapes

The Geometry of s Orbits

The boundary surface diagram for the s orbital resembles a sphere with the nucleus as its centre, which can be viewed as a circle in two dimensions.
Therefore, s-orbitals are spherically symmetric, as the probability of finding an electron at a given distance is the same in all directions.
Also, the size of the s orbital increases as the value of the primary quantum number (n) increases, therefore 4s > 3s > 2s > 1s.

The Geometry of the p Orbitals

Each p orbital is composed of two lobes that lie on each side of the plane that passes through the nucleus.
The orientation of the lobes differs among the three p orbitals, despite their similar size, shape, and energy.
Due to the fact that the lobes lay along the x, y, or z axis, these three orbitals are designated as 2px, 2py, and 2pz. Consequently, we can say that there are three p orbitals with mutually perpendicular axes.
Similar to s orbitals, the size and energy of p orbitals grow as the primary quantum number increases (4p > 3p > 2p).

The Geometry of d Orbitals

The quantum number of magnetic orbital quantum states for d orbitals is given as (-2,-1,0, 1,2). Consequently, we can assert that there are five d-orbitals.
The designations for these orbitals are dxy, dyz, dxz, dx2–y 2 and dz2.
The shapes of the first four d-orbitals are similar to one another, however, the dz2 orbital has a distinct shape, whereas the energy of all five d orbitals is identical.

The Geometry of the f Orbitals

Complicated or dense structure

Difference between Shell, Subshell and Orbital

The electrons in an atom are organised into shells, also known as energy levels or orbits, such as k, l, n, and m shells, which encircle the nucleus. Each succeeding shell is further away from the nucleus than the one before it. Each electron shell consists of one or more subshells, and each subshell consists of one or more atomic orbitals.

Designation of the Quantum Number

The primary quantum number is assigned to a shell.

You can think of a subshell as a number equal to the angular momentum of the shell.

The magnetic quantum number is assigned to an orbital.

Maximum Electrons in Shell,Subshell and Orbital

  • A maximum of 32 electrons can fit in a shell.
  • Subshell: Depending on the subshell type, there is a maximum amount of electrons that it can accommodate.
  • A maximum of 2 electrons can be accommodated in one orbital.


Electrons, protons, and neutrons make up an atom. The nucleus contains both protons and neutrons. Around the nucleus, electrons cluster. This cloud of electrons is full of roving electrons. New evidence suggests this is more than simply a cloud. When it comes to energy, electrons travel along quantized energy levels. In appearance, they resemble channels through which electrons can travel. These routes are categorised into different levels called shells, subshells, and orbitals. Atoms in the same shell all have the same primary quantum number, atoms in the same subshell all have the same angular momentum quantum number, whereas atoms in the same energy level but with different spins are all in the same orbital.

Frequently Asked Questions – FAQs

What is meant by energy shells?

The energy shell possesses a specific amount of energy. The greater the distance between the orbit and the nucleus, the larger the associated energy. These are known as energy level shells.

What is the difference between KLM and N shells in chemistry?

K represents the first shell or energy level, L represents the second shell or energy level, and M represents the third shell or energy level. The fourth shell and fourth energy level is N.

How are electrons able to fill the shell?

Filling the shells with electrons moves from lower energy to higher energy. Subshells with a lower n + l value are filled prior to those with a higher n + l value. In the event where n + l values are equal, the subshell with the smaller n value is filled first.

What number of electrons does chlorine possess?

An atom of chlorine contains seventeen electrons.

Describe a valence shell with an illustration.

The valence shell of an atom is its outermost orbital shell. These electrons participate in atomic bonding. Example sodium (Na); sodium’s electrical arrangement is 1s2 2s2 2p6 3s1 The M (3rd) shell is the valence shell of sodium.

How many orbitals does chemistry contain?

Each of the four possible orbital shapes (s, p, d, and f) has a different size, and can hold a maximum of two electrons. The p, d, and f orbitals contain distinct sublevels and may therefore accommodate more electrons. As demonstrated, the electron arrangement of each element is unique to its location on the periodic table.

How do orbitals function?

In atomic theory and quantum mechanics, an atomic orbital is a mathematical phrase that represents the wave-like behaviour of either a single electron or a pair of electrons in an atom. Each orbital may accommodate a maximum of two electrons, each with its own amount of spin.

How many orbital regions exist?

The s sublevel contains only one orbital, hence there can be a maximum of two electrons. The p sublevel has three orbitals, hence a maximum of six electrons can exist. The d sublevel contains 5 orbitals, hence a maximum of 10 electrons may exist. And each of the four sublevels has seven orbitals that may hold a maximum of 14 electrons.

Why does the s orbital have a spherical shape?

All s orbitals are spherical in shape and possess spherical symmetry. Therefore, the function of the wave will only depend on its distance from the nucleus and not its direction. As the central quantum number of the orbital drops for any particle, the size of the orbital reduces while the geometry remains spherical.

What is the sigma-pi bond?

The overlap of atomic orbitals creates sigma and pi bonds. Sigma bonds are generated via end-to-end overlap, whereas Pi bonds are created when one atomic orbital lobe overlaps another. As seen along the axis of the bond, both names were taken from Greek letters and the bond itself.

What is the P orbital abbreviation?

The letters s, p, d, and f stand for sharp, primary, diffuse, and fundamental, respectively. The letters and words correspond to the visual impression left by the fine structure of the spectral lines, which results from the initial relativistic corrections, specifically the spin-orbit interaction.

What orbitals possess the most energy?

The orbital 1s are the most energetic. You will appreciate it more if you discuss other topics: But first, let’s be quite clear: the energy of an electron is the energy required to get it out of the atom’s electrical bubble.

What is the distinction between shells and orbitals?

A shell in an atom is a collection of quantum number theory, n, subshells. Each orbital contains two electrons, and electrons belonging to the same orbital share the same size, angular momentum size, and magnetic quantum number.

Related Posts

10th Class Chemistry Free Downloadable pdf Notes

11th Class Chemistry Chapterwise Free pdf Notes

12th Class Chemistry Free Downloadable

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: