Variation in Electron Affinities

The electron affinity (EA) is the energy change for the process of adding an electron to a gaseous atom to form an anion (negative ion). $$X\;(g)+e^−⟶X^−(g)$$

This process can be either endothermic or exothermic, depending on the element. The EA of some of the elements is given in Figure 1 below. You can see that many of these elements have negative values of EA, which means that energy is released when the gaseous atom accepts an electron. However, for some elements, energy is required for the atom to become negatively charged and the value of their EA is positive. Just as with ionization energy, subsequent EA values are associated with forming ions with more charge. The second EA is the energy associated with adding an electron to an anion to form a –2 ion, and so on.

As we might predict, it becomes easier to add an electron across a series of atoms as the effective nuclear charge of the atoms increases. We find, as we go from left to right across a period, EAs tend to become more negative. The exceptions found among the elements of group 2 (2A), group 15 (5A), and group 18 (8A) can be understood based on the electronic structure of these groups. The noble gases, group 18 (8A), have a completely filled shell and the incoming electron must be added to a higher n level, which is more difficult to do. Group 2 (2A) has a filled ns subshell, and so the next electron added goes into the higher energy np, so, again, the observed EA value is not as the trend would predict. Finally, group 15 (5A) has a half-filled np subshell and the next electron must be paired with an existing np electron. In all of these cases, the initial relative stability of the electron configuration disrupts the trend in EA.

We also might expect the atom at the top of each group to have the most negative EA; their first ionization potentials suggest that these atoms have the largest effective nuclear charges. However, as we move down a group, we see that the second element in the group most often has the most negative EA. This can be attributed to the small size of the n = 2 shell and the resulting large electron–electron repulsions. For example, chlorine, with an EA value of –348 kJ/mol, has the highest value of any element in the periodic table. The EA of fluorine is –322 kJ/mol. When we add an electron to a fluorine atom to form a fluoride anion (F), we add an electron to the n = 2 shell. The electron is attracted to the nucleus, but there is also significant repulsion from the other electrons already present in this small valence shell. The chlorine atom has the same electron configuration in the valence shell, but because the entering electron is going into the n = 3 shell, it occupies a considerably larger region of space and the electron–electron repulsions are reduced. The entering electron does not experience as much repulsion and the chlorine atom accepts an additional electron more readily, resulting in a more negative EA.

This version of the periodic table displays the electron affinity values (in kJ/mol) for selected elements.

The properties discussed in this section (size of atoms and ions, effective nuclear charge, ionization energies, and electron affinities) are central to understanding chemical reactivity. For example, because fluorine has an energetically favorable EA and a large energy barrier to ionization (IE), it is much easier to form fluorine anions than cations. Metallic properties including conductivity and malleability (the ability to be formed into sheets) depend on having electrons that can be removed easily. Thus, metallic character increases as we move down a group and decreases across a period in the same trend observed for atomic size because it is easier to remove an electron that is farther away from the nucleus.

Key Concepts and Summary

Electron configurations allow us to understand many periodic trends. Covalent radius increases as we move down a group because the n level (orbital size) increases. Covalent radius mostly decreases as we move left to right across a period because the effective nuclear charge experienced by the electrons increases, and the electrons are pulled in tighter to the nucleus. Anionic radii are larger than the parent atom, while cationic radii are smaller, because the number of valence electrons has changed while the nuclear charge has remained constant. Ionization energy (the energy associated with forming a cation) decreases down a group and mostly increases across a period because it is easier to remove an electron from a larger, higher energy orbital. Electron affinity (the energy associated with forming an anion) is more favorable (exothermic) when electrons are placed into lower energy orbitals, closer to the nucleus. Therefore, electron affinity becomes increasingly negative as we move left to right across the periodic table and decreases as we move down a group. For both IE and electron affinity data, there are exceptions to the trends when dealing with completely filled or half-filled subshells.