S P D F Orbitals and Angular Momentum Quantum Numbers

What You Need to Know About Orbital Name Abbreviations s p d f

graphic representation of the 4fz3 electron orbital.
This is a graphic representation of the 4fz3 electron orbital. DR MARK J. WINTER/Getty Images

What S, P, D, F Mean

The orbital names s, p, d, and f stand for names given to groups of lines originally noted in the spectra of the alkali metals. These line groups are called sharp, principal, diffuse, and fundamental.

The orbital letters are associated with the angular momentum quantum number, which is assigned an integer value from 0 to 3. s correlates to 0, p = 1, d = 2, and f = 3.The angular momentum quantum number can be used to give the shapes of the electronic orbitals.

Shapes of Orbitals and Electron Density Patterns

s orbitals are spherical; p orbitals are polar and are oriented in particular directions (x, y, and z). It may be simpler to think of these two letters in terms of orbital shapes (d and f aren't described as readily). However, if you look at a cross-section of an orbital, it isn't uniform. For the s orbital, for example, there are shells of higher and lower electron density. The density near the nucleus is very low. It's not zero, though, so there is a small chance of finding an electron within the atomic nucleus!

What the Orbital Shape Means

The electron configuration of an atom denotes the distribution of electrons among available shells. At any point in time, an electron can be anywhere, but it's probably contained somewhere in the volume described by the orbital shape. Electrons can only move between orbitals by absorbing or emitting a packet or quantum of energy.

The standard notation lists the subshell symbols, one after another. The number of electrons contained in each subshell is stated explicitly. For example, the electron configuration of beryllium, with an atomic (and electron) number of 4, is 1s22s2 or [He]2s2. The superscript is the number of electrons in the level. For beryllium, there are two electrons in the 1s orbital and 2 electrons in the 2s orbital.

The number in front of the energy level indicates relative energy. For example, 1s is lower energy than 2s, which in turn is lower energy than 2p. The number in front of the energy level also indicates its distance from the nucleus. 1s is closer to the atomic nucleus than 2s.

Electron Filling Pattern

Electrons fill up energy levels in a predictable manner. The electron filling pattern is:

1s, 2s, 2p, 3s, 3p, 4s, 3d, 4p, 5s, 4d, 5p, 6s, 4f, 5d, 6p, 7s, 5f

  • s can hold 2 electrons
  • p can hold 6 electrons
  • d can hold 10 electrons
  • f can hold 14 electrons

Note that individual orbitals hold a maximum of 2 electrons. There can be 2 electrons within an s-orbital, p-orbital, or d-orbital. It's just there are more orbitals within f than d than p than s.