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Abundance of the chemical elements

The abundance of a chemical element measures how relatively common the element is, or how much of the element there is by comparison to all other elements. Abundance may be variously measured by the mass-fraction (the same as weight fraction), or mole-fraction (fraction of atoms, or sometimes fraction of molecules, in gases), or by volume fraction. Measurement by volume-fraction is a common abundance measure in mixed gases such as atmospheres, which is close to molecular mole-fraction for ideal gas mixtures (i.e., gas mixtures at relatively low densities and pressures).

For example, the mass-fraction abundance of oxygen in water is about 89%, because that is the fraction of water's mass which is oxygen. However, the mole-fraction abundance of oxygen in water is only 33% because only 1 atom in 3 in water is an oxygen atom. In the universe as a whole, and in the atmospheres of gas-giant planets such as Jupiter, the mass-fraction abundances of hydrogen and helium are about 74% and 23-25% respectively, while the (atomic) mole-fractions of these elements are closer to 92% and 8%. However, since hydrogen is diatomic while helium is not in the conditions of Jupiter's outer atmosphere, the molecular mole-fraction (fraction of total gas molecules, or fraction of atmosphere by volume) of hydrogen in the outer atmosphere of Jupiter is about 86%, and for helium, 13%.

Most abundances in this article are given as mass-fraction abundances.


Abundance of elements in the Universe

The elements - namely ordinary (baryonic) matter made out of protons and neutrons (as well as electrons) - are only a small part of the content of the Universe. Cosmological observations suggest that about 73% of the universe consists of dark energy, 23% is composed of dark matter and only 4% corresponds to the visible baryonic matter which constitutes stars, planets and living beings. Dark matter has not yet been detected in a particle physics detector, and the nature of the dark energy is not yet understood.

Most standard (baryonic) matter is found in the form of atoms, although there are many other unusual kinds of matter, mostly plasma. Other forms of baryonic matter include white dwarves, neutron stars and black holes. Standard matter also exists as photons (mostly in the cosmic microwave background) and neutrons.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the known Universe; helium is second. However, after this, the rank of abundance does not continue to correspond to the atomic number; oxygen has abundance rank 3, but atomic number 8. All others are orders of magnitude less common.

The abundance of the lightest elements is well predicted by the standard cosmological model, since they were mostly produced shortly after the Big Bang, in a process known as Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Heavier elements were mostly produced much later, inside stars.

Helium-3 is rare on Earth and sought-after for use in nuclear fusion research. More abundant helium-3 is thought to exist on the Moon. Additional helium is produced by the fusion of hydrogen inside stellar cores by a variety of processes including the proton-proton chain and the CNO cycle.

Hydrogen and helium are estimated to make up roughly 74% and 24% of all baryonic matter in the universe respectively. Despite comprising only a very small fraction of the universe, the remaining "heavy elements" can greatly influence astronomical phenomena. Only about 2% (by mass) of the Milky Way galaxy's disk is composed of heavy elements.

These other elements are generated by stellar processes. In astronomy, a "metal" is any element other than hydrogen or helium. This distinction is significant because hydrogen and helium (together with trace amounts of lithium) are the only elements that occur naturally without the nuclear fusion activity of stars. Thus, the metallicity of a galaxy or other object is an indication of past stellar activity.

These are the ten most common elements in the Universe as measured in parts per million, by mass[citation needed]:

ElementParts per million
Hydrogen 739,000
Helium 240,000
Oxygen 10,700
Carbon 4,600
Neon 1,340
Iron 1,090
Nitrogen 950
Silicon 650
Magnesium 580
Sulfur 440
All Others 650

See also: Stellar population

Abundance of elements on Earth

See also: Earth#Chemical composition

The Earth formed from the same cloud of matter that formed the Sun, but the planets acquired different compositions during the formation and evolution of the solar system. The history of Earth caused parts of this planet to have differing concentrations of the elements.

Abundance of elements in Earth's crust

This graph illustrates the relative abundance of the chemical elements in Earth's upper continental crust.


Many of the elements shown in the graphic are classified into (partially overlapping) categories:

  1. rock-forming elements (major elements in green field and minor elements in light green field);
  2. rare earth elements (lanthanides, La-Lu, and Y; labeled in blue);
  3. major industrial metals (global production >~3×107 kg/year; labeled in bold);
  4. precious metals (italic);
  5. the nine rarest "metals" — the six platinum group elements plus Au, Re, and Te (a metalloid).

Note that there are two breaks where the unstable elements technetium (atomic number: 43) and promethium (atomic number: 61) would be. These are very rare, as on Earth they are only produced through the fission of heavy radioactive elements (for example, uranium or thorium). Both elements have been identified spectroscopically in the atmospheres of stars, where they are produced by ongoing nucleosynthetic processes. There are also breaks where the six noble gases would be as they are found in the Earth's crust due to decay chains from radioactive elements and are therefore not included. The six very rare, highly radioactive elements (polonium, astatine, francium, radium, actinium and protactinium) are not included, as their natural abundances are too low to have been accurately measured.

Oxygen and silicon are notably common; they form several common silicate minerals.

"Rare earth" element abundances

"Rare" earth elements is a historical misnomer; persistence of the term reflects unfamiliarity rather than true rarity. The more abundant rare earth elements are each similar in crustal concentration to commonplace industrial metals such as chromium, nickel, copper, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, or lead. Even the two least abundant rare earth elements (Tm, Lu) are nearly 200 times more common than gold. However, in contrast to ordinary base and precious metals, rare earth elements have very little tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits. Consequently, most of the world's supply of rare earth elements comes from only a handful of sources.

Differences in abundances of individual rare earth elements in the upper continental crust of Earth represent the superposition of two effects, one nuclear and one geochemical. First, rare earth elements with even atomic numbers (58Ce, 60Nd, ...) have greater cosmic and terrestrial abundances than adjacent rare earth elements with odd atomic numbers (57La, 59Pr, ...). Second, the lighter rare earth elements are more incompatible (because they have larger ionic radii) and therefore more strongly concentrated in the continental crust than the heavier rare earth elements. In most rare earth deposits, the first four rare earth elements - La, Ce, Pr, and Nd - constitute 80 to 99% of the total.


Elemental composition of Earth's ocean water (by mass)
Element Percent Element Percent
Oxygen 85.84 Sulfur 0.091
Hydrogen 10.82 Calcium 0.04
Chlorine 1.94 Potassium 0.04
Sodium 1.08 Bromine 0.0067
Magnesium 0.1292 Carbon 0.0028

See sea water for abundance of elements in the ocean, but note that that list is by mass - a list by molarity (mole-fraction) would look very different for the first 4 elements; specifically, hydrogen would comprise nearly two-thirds of the number of all atoms because hydrogen itself comprises two of the three atoms of all water molecules.


The order of elements by volume-fraction (which is approximately molecular mole-fraction) in the atmosphere is nitrogen (78.1%), oxygen (20.9%), argon (0.96%), followed by (in uncertain order) carbon and hydrogen because water vapor and carbon dioxide which represent most of these two elements in the air are variable components. Sulfur, phosphorus, and all other elements are present in significantly lower proportions.

According to the above graphic, argon, a significant if not major component of the atmosphere, does not appear in the crust at all because argon, an inert gas, cannot remain within the crust.

Human body

By mass, human cells consist of 65-90% water (H2O), and a significant portion is composed of carbon-containing organic molecules. Oxygen therefore contributes a majority of a human body's mass, followed by carbon. 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of the six elements oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.

Element Percent by mass
Oxygen 65
Carbon 18
Hydrogen 10
Nitrogen 3
Calcium 1.5
Phosphorus 1.2
Potassium 0.2
Sulfur 0.2
Chlorine 0.2
Sodium 0.1
Magnesium 0.05
Iron, Cobalt, Copper, Zinc, Iodine <0.05 each
Selenium, Fluorine <0.01 each

Chang, Raymond (2007). Chemistry, Ninth Edition. McGraw-Hill, p. 52. ISBN 0-07-110595-6. 

See also

Parts of this article are taken from the public domain sources at and Please update as needed.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Abundance_of_the_chemical_elements". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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