How to Find the Mass Number

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If you have a given mass of a compound, you can calculate the number of moles. Conversely, if you know how many moles of the compound you have, you can calculate its mass. For either calculation, you need to know two things: the chemical formula of the compound and the mass numbers of the elements that comprise it. An element's mass number is unique to that element, and it's listed right underneath the element's symbol in the periodic table. The mass number of an element is not the same as its atomic number.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The atomic mass number of each element appears under its symbol in the periodic table. It's listed in atomic mass units, which is equivalent to grams/mole.

Atomic Number and Atomic Mass Number

Every element is characterized by a unique number of positively charged protons in its nucleus. For example, hydrogen has one proton, and oxygen has eight. The periodic table is an arrangement of the elements according to increasing atomic number. The first entry is hydrogen, the eighth is oxygen and so on. The place an element occupies in the periodic table is an immediate indication of its atomic number, or the number of protons in its nucleus.

Besides protons, the nuclei of most elements also contains neutrons. These fundamental particles don't have a charge, but they have roughly the same mass as protons, so they must be included in the atomic mass. The atomic mass number is the sum of all protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The hydrogen atom may contain a neutron, but it usually doesn't, so the mass number of hydrogen is 1. Oxygen, on the other hand, has an equal number of proteins and neutrons, which raises its mass number to 16. Subtracting an element's mass number from its atomic mass tells you the number of protons in its nucleus.

Finding the Mass Number

The best place to look for an element's atomic mass number is in the periodic table. It's displayed under the symbol for the element. You might be mystified by the fact that in many versions of the periodic table, this number contains a decimal fraction, which you wouldn't expect if it was derived simply by adding protons and neutrons.

The reason for this is that the number displayed is the relative atomic weight, which is derived from all the naturally occurring isotopes of the element weighted by the percentage of each that occurs. Isotopes are formed when the number of neutrons in an element is more or less than the number of protons. Some of these isotopes, such as carbon-13, are stable, but some are unstable and decay over time to a more stable state. Such isotopes, such as carbon-14, are radioactive.

Virtually all elements have more than one isotope, so each has an atomic mass that contains a decimal fraction. For example, the atomic mass of hydrogen listed in the periodic table is 1.008, that for carbon is 12.011 and that for oxygen is 15.99. Uranium, with an atomic number of 92, has three naturally occurring isotopes. Its atomic mass is 238.029. In practice, scientists usually round mass number to the nearest integer.

Units for Mass

The units for atomic mass have been refined over the years, and today scientists use the unified atomic mass unit (amu, or simply u). It is defined to be equal to exactly one-twelfth the mass of an unbound carbon-12 atom. By definition, the mass of one mole of an element, or Avogadro's number (6.02 x 1023) of atoms, is equal to its atomic mass in grams. In other words, 1 amu = 1 gram/mole. So if the mass of one hydrogen atom is 1 amu, the mass of one mole of hydrogen is 1 gram. The mass of one mole of carbon is therefore 12 grams, and that of uranium is 238 grams.

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