Mass Defect Definition in Physics and Chemistry

Understand What Mass Defect Means in Science

A mass defect occurs when the mass of an atom is different from the sum of the masses of its subatomic particles.
A mass defect occurs when the mass of an atom is different from the sum of the masses of its subatomic particles. RICHARD KAIL / Getty Images

In physics and chemistry, a mass defect refers to the difference in mass between of an atom and the sum of the masses of the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the atom.

This mass is typically associated with the binding energy between nucleons. The "missing" mass is the energy released by the formation of the atomic nucleus. Einstein's formula, E = mc2, may be applied to calculate the binding energy of a nucleus.

According to the formula, when energy increases, mass and inertia increase. Removing energy reduces mass.

Mass Defect Example

For example, a helium atom containing two protons and two neutrons (4 nucleons) has a mass about 0.8 percent lower than the total mass of four hydrogen nuclei, which each contain one nucleon.