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Definition

molecule

A molecule is the smallest particle in a chemical element or compound that has the chemical properties of that element or compound. Molecules are made up of atoms that are held together by chemical bonds. These bonds form as a result of the sharing or exchange of electrons among atoms. The atoms of certain elements readily bond with other atoms to form molecules. Examples of such elements are oxygen and chlorine. The atoms of some elements do not easily bond with other atoms. Examples are neon and argon.

Molecules can vary greatly in size and complexity. The element helium is a one-atom molecule. Some molecules consist of two atoms of the same element. For example, O2 is the oxygen molecule most commonly found in the earth's atmosphere; it has two atoms of oxygen. However, under certain circumstances, oxygen atoms bond into triplets (O3), forming a molecule known as ozone. Other familiar molecules include water, consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O), carbon dioxide, consisting of one carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms (CO2), and sulfuric acid, consisting of two hydrogen atoms, one sulfur atom, and four oxygen atoms (H2 SO4).

Some molecules, notably certain proteins, contain hundreds or even thousands of atoms that join together in chains that can attain considerable lengths. Liquids containing such molecules sometimes behave strangely. For example, a liquid may continue to flow out of a flask from which some of it has been poured, even after the flask is returned to an upright position.

Molecules are always in motion. In solids and liquids, they are packed tightly together. In a solid, the motion of the molecules can be likened to rapid vibration. In a liquid, the molecules can move freely among each other, in a sort of slithering fashion. In a gas, the density of molecules is generally less than in a liquid or solid of the same chemical compound, and they move even more freely than in a liquid. For a specific compound in a given state (solid, liquid, or gas), the speed of molecular motion increases as the absolute temperature increases.

This was last updated in December 2016

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