What Is the Difference between an Element and a Compound?

For some reason, many students consider chemistry to be a hard and tricky subject to learn. In reality, chemistry is not that challenging to study and understand. The main issue is that students often ignore some of the core concepts in chemistry and then have trouble comprehending more advanced topics. For example, you won’t be able to solve problems in chemistry or write reaction equations if you don’t have a proper understanding of what elements and compounds are. 

An element is a substance composed of only one type of atom while a compound is a substance consisting of two or more different types of elements. 

This article will provide further information about the differences between an element and a compound. To make the concept easier to understand, the text will also discuss different types of elements and compounds in chemistry. 

Elements vs Compounds: What’s the Difference?

Differentiating between elements and compounds is pretty straightforward. And you don’t even need to know any fancy concepts in chemistry. Here’s how to tell if a molecule is an element of a compound. 

The main difference between an element and a compound is that elements are made of one type of atom while compounds are made of two or more different types of atoms. In addition, elements cannot be broken down into simpler components by chemical reactions while compounds can be separated into simpler substances by chemical reactions. 

For example, carbon is an element as it consists of carbon atoms only. On the other hand, carbon dioxide is a compound as it’s made of carbon and oxygen atoms.

When it comes to diatomic elements (hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine) students often think that they are compounds just because they contain two atoms per molecule. However, the substances mentioned above consist of the same types of atoms and, therefore, are elements. 

So, in H2, there are only hydrogen atoms, meaning that it’s an element, not a compound. The same applies to all other diatomic elements. Keep in mind that in diatomic elements, atoms appear in pairs, but this doesn’t make them compounds. 

MooMooMath and Science covers the differences between elements and compounds in this short YouTube video

The Summary of the Differences between Elements and Compounds

Element Compound
Representation Represented by symbols Represented by chemical formulas that include two or more different element symbols
Composition Contain only one type of atom Contain two or more different types of atoms (elements)
Ability to Break Down Cannot be separated into simpler components by chemical reactions Can be broken down into simpler components by chemical reactions

What Is an Element? Everything You Need to Know

To better understand what elements are, here are a few basic concepts to start with. You can also check this quick video guide on what elements are. 

Elements and the Periodic Table

There are 118 known elements and all of them are presented in the periodic table. Each element has a unique atomic number and atomic mass. 

The atomic number (Z) represents the number of protons in an atom of an element and is written above the element symbol. 

On the other hand, atomic mass (A) is the average mass of the element atom and is typically written under the element symbol. 

Elements and Atoms

Every element is composed of one type of atom. While most elements are made of a single atom, there are 8 diatomic elements in the periodic table, including H2, N2, O2, F2, Cl2, Br2, and I2. These elements consist of two identical atoms. 

Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons

Since every element contains an atom, it’s important to know what atoms consist of. In every atom, there are three main types of subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. 

The main difference between these particles is the electric charge. While protons are positively charged particles and electrons carry a negative electric charge, neutrons are electrically neutral particles. 

Read more about the properties of protons, neutrons, and electrons in this chapter on Chem LibreTexts. 

What Is a Compound? Everything You Need to Know

While compounds are much more complex than elements, understanding what they are and how they work is not that hard. Here’s what you need to know. 

Types of Compounds in Chemistry

Generally speaking, there are two types of chemical compounds in terms of bonds: ionic compounds and covalent compounds. In simple terms, ionic compounds are made of metal and nonmetal atoms and covalent compounds contain nonmetal atoms only. 

Note that covalent compounds are either polar or nonpolar. If the difference in electronegativities of the two nonmetal atoms is less than 0.4, the compound is considered nonpolar covalent. If this difference is more than 0.4, the compound is said to be polar covalent. 

Classification of Chemical Compounds

Based on the composition of chemical compounds, they can be further classified into two main categories: inorganic compounds and organic compounds. Here are some of the examples. 

Categorization of Inorganic Compounds

Inorganic compounds are substances that contain two or more elements, typically other than carbon. However, some carbon-containing compounds (such as CO2, SiC2, CaCO3, etc.) are inorganic. 

Common groups of inorganic compounds include bases, acids, salts, and water. 

Categorization of Organic Compounds

Organic compounds are substances which carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bonds. A few exceptions are alkyl halides (haloalkanes) in which all hydrogen atoms have been replaced with halogen atoms (e.g., CCl4, C2Br6, etc.). 

Common groups of organic compounds include alkanes, alkenes, alkynes + their derivatives, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, ethers, esters, carboxylic acids, fatty acids, carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. 

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