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Essential Elements

10 11 a burnIng QuEStIon chemical conflagrations Most things around us are compounds, or mixtures of elements. To bond, atoms simply rearrange their outer, highest energy valence electrons, keeping their interiors safely out of the way. Opposite top is an exothermic reaction, which produces heat. After initially loosening the gas molecules with a flame, new water bonds quickly form which lock up less energy than the original gas bonds. The released energy keeps the reaction going and the gases explode, frantically shuffling electrons. Below we see an endothermic reaction that takes place when plants photosynthesize. Here the sums go the other way and heat needs to be absorbed, in this case from sunlight. The products therefore have more energy than the reactants. Matter itself exists in several different phases below. Solids pack atoms closely in rigid arrangements. Heating makes the atoms vibrate, shaking them apart to form liquids that can flow and change shape. Heating further weakens even these loose bonds and the atoms scatter at high speed in all directions as gases. At yet higher temperatures some of the electrons are knocked off the atoms to create an electrically charged, ionized plasma, like that found in the superhot corona of the sun.
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