In chemistry and atomic physics, an electron shell, or a principal energy level, may be thought of as an orbit followed by electrons around an atom's nucleus. The closest shell to the nucleus is called the "1 shell" (also called "K shell"), followed by the "2 shell" (or "L shell"), then the "3 shell" (or "M shell"), and so on farther and farther from the nucleus. The shells correspond with the principal quantum numbers (n = 1, 2, 3, 4 ...) or are labeled alphabetically with letters used in the X-ray notation (K, L, M, …).
Each shell can contain only a fixed number of electrons: The first shell can hold up to two electrons, the second shell can hold up to eight (2 + 6) electrons, the third shell can hold up to 18 (2 + 6 + 10) and so on. The general formula is that the nth shell can in principle hold up to 2(n2) electrons. Since electrons are electrically attracted to the nucleus, an atom's electrons will generally occupy outer shells only if the more inner shells have already been completely filled by other electrons. However, this is not a strict requirement: atoms may have two or even three incomplete outer shells. (See Madelung rule for more details.) For an explanation of why electrons exist in these shells see electron configuration.
If an atom, ion, or molecule is at the lowest possible energy level, it and its electrons are said to be in the ground state. If it is at a higher energy level, it is said to be excited, or any electrons that have higher energy than the ground state are excited. If more than one quantum mechanical state is at the same energy, the energy levels are "degenerate". They are then called degenerate energy levels.
Quantized energy levels result from the relation between a particle's energy and its wavelength. For a confined particle such as an electron in an atom, the wave function has the form of standing waves. Only stationary states with energies corresponding to integral numbers of wavelengths[clarification needed] can exist; for other states the waves interfere destructively,[clarification needed] resulting in zero probability density. Elementary examples that show mathematically how energy levels come about are the particle in a box and the quantum harmonic oscillator.
The first evidence of quantization in atoms was the observation of spectral lines in light from the sun in the early 1800s by Joseph von Fraunhofer and William Hyde Wollaston. The notion of energy levels was proposed in 1913 by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in the Bohr theory of the atom. The modern quantum mechanical theory giving an explanation of these energy levels in terms of the Schrödinger equation was advanced by Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg in 1926.
In the formulas for energy of electrons at various levels given below in an atom, the zero point for energy is set when the electron in question has completely left the atom, i.e. when the electron's principal quantum number n = ∞. When the electron is bound to the atom in any closer value of n, the electron's energy is lower and is considered negative.