Difference between an Element and an Atom

December 20, 2016 by Editorial Team

A long time ago people didn’t fully understand what made up the different objects all around us. The complexity and nature of matter was just said to be made of simpler substances. And that it cannot be further simplified. These basic substances were called elements. Elements can also be mixed in a specific ratio to produce other materials. Conversely, when things are cut up repeatedly, there will be a point where it can no longer be divided. They called this indivisible part of the object an “atom.” Most of us probably cannot differentiate an element from an atom. In this article we will discuss these topics and explore their differences.


Element vs Atom
The periodic table lists all the identified chemical elements described by their atomic number, grouped with other elements with similar properties

An element is the most basic form of a substance. The classical elements are earth, water, air, fire and “aether” (a combination of air and spirit). Modern chemistry has identified 118 elements. Of these elements, 94 are naturally made, while the rest are synthetically produced. A pure element would be made up of atoms of the same kind and structure. When atoms combine, this is no longer a pure element and it makes up an entirely new substance or material. The size of an element may vary depending on the number of atoms it contains.

A helium atom, illustrating the basic structure of an atom

Atom comes from the Greek word atomon, which means “something that cannot be divided.” An atom is the smallest recognizable unit that makes up a specific substance. It can only be seen under an electron microscope. The usual size of an atom is around 100 picometers (a ten-billionth of a meter). It is the most basic ingredient of all the 118 chemical elements. Atoms are composed of electrons (negatively charged particles) that float around a central nucleus of neutrons (no charge) and protons (positively charged particles). The number of protons in an atom is called the “atomic number.” This determines what element the atom is.

Putting together atoms of different elements produces more complex substances. These make up all other materials that we use. The structure of an atom determines the properties of the object it makes up.

Element vs Atom

What’s the difference between an element and an atom? An element is the most basic form of a substance while an atom is the smallest recognizable unit of an element. An element is composed of atoms whereas an atom is made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. The size of an element varies with the amount of atoms it contains. An atom’s size, on the other hand, is roughly a ten-billionth of a meter.

Comparison Chart

Most basic form of a substanceSmallest recognizable unit of an element
Composed of atomsComposed of electrons and a nucleus of protons and neutrons
Size varies depending on the number of atomsSize is around 100 picometers (a ten-billionth of a meter)