Effective atomic number
Effective atomic number has two different meanings: one that is the effective nuclear charge of an atom, and one that calculates the average atomic number
Atomic number
In chemistry and physics, the atomic number is the number of protons found in the nucleus of an atom and therefore identical to the charge number of the nucleus. It is conventionally represented by the symbol Z. The atomic number uniquely identifies a chemical element...

 for a compound or mixture of materials. Both are abbreviated Zeff.

For an atom

The effective atomic number Zeff, (sometimes referred to as the effective nuclear charge) of an atom
The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

 is the number of protons an electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

 in the element effectively 'sees' due to screening by inner-shell electrons. It is a measure of the electrostatic interaction between the negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons in the atom. One can view the electrons in an atom as being 'stacked' by energy outside the nucleus; the lowest energy electrons (such as the 1s and 2s electrons) occupy the space closest to the nucleus, and electrons of higher energy are located further from the nucleus.

The binding energy
Binding energy
Binding energy is the mechanical energy required to disassemble a whole into separate parts. A bound system typically has a lower potential energy than its constituent parts; this is what keeps the system together—often this means that energy is released upon the creation of a bound state...

 of an electron, or the energy needed to remove the electron from the atom, is a function of the electrostatic interaction between the negatively charged electrons and the positively charged nucleus. In Iron
Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal in the first transition series. It is the most common element forming the planet Earth as a whole, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust...

, atomic number 26, for instance, the nucleus contains 26 protons. The electrons that are closest to the nucleus will 'see' nearly all of them. However, electrons further away are screened from the nucleus by other electrons in between, and feel less electrostatic interaction as a result. The 1s electron of Iron (the closest one to the nucleus) sees an effective atomic number (number of protons) of 25. The reason why it is not 26 is because some of the electrons in the atom end up repelling the others, giving a net lower electrostatic interaction with the nucleus. One way of envisioning this effect is to imagine the 1s electron sitting on one side of the 26 protons in the nucleus, with another electron sitting on the other side; each electron will feel less than the attractive force of 26 protons because the other electron contributes a repelling force. The 4s electrons in Iron, which are furthest from the nucleus, feel an effective atomic number of only 5.43 because of the 25 electrons in between it and the nucleus screening the charge.

Effective atomic numbers are useful not only in understanding why electrons further from the nucleus are so much more weakly bound than those closer to the nucleus, but also because they can tell us when to use simplified methods of calculating other properties and interactions. For instance, Lithium
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly...

, atomic number 3, has two electrons in the 1s shell and one in the 2s shell. Because the two 1s electrons screen the protons to give an effective atomic number for the 2s electron close to 1, we can treat this 2s valence electron with a hydrogenic model.

Mathematically, the effective atomic number Zeff can be calculated using methods known as "self-consistent field" calculations, but in simplified situations is just taken as the atomic number minus the number of electrons between the nucleus and the electron being considered.

For a compound or mixture

Effective atomic number is a term that is similar to atomic number but is used for compounds
Chemical compound
A chemical compound is a pure chemical substance consisting of two or more different chemical elements that can be separated into simpler substances by chemical reactions. Chemical compounds have a unique and defined chemical structure; they consist of a fixed ratio of atoms that are held together...

 (e.g. water) and mixtures of different materials (such as tissue and bone) rather than for atoms. Given some particular compound or mixture, the effective atomic number can in spirit be found by asking the question: What would the atomic number of a pure element have to be for the element to behave like this compound or mixture? The answer often involves a weighted average of the atomic numbers of the constituent atoms. One proposed formula for the effective atomic number, Zeff, is as follows:
is the fraction of the total number of electrons associated with each element, and
is the atomic number of each element.

An example is that of water (H2O), made up of two hydrogen atoms (Z=1) and one oxygen atom (Z=8), the total number of electrons is 1+1+8 = 10, so the fraction of electrons for the two hydrogens is (2/10) and for the one oxygen is (8/10). So the Zeff for water is:

Effective atomic number is important for predicting how X-ray
X-radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz and energies in the range 120 eV to 120 keV. They are shorter in wavelength than UV rays and longer than gamma...

s interact with a substance, as certain types of x-ray interactions depend on the atomic number. The exact formula, as well as the exponent 2.94, can depend on the energy range being used.

This 'power law' method, while commonly employed, is of questionable appropriateness in contemporary scientific applications within the context of radiation interactions in heterogeneous media. This approach dates back to the late 1930s when photon sources were restricted to low-energy x-ray units (Mayneord 1937). The exponent of 2.94 relates to an empirical formula for the photoelectric process which incorporates a ‘constant’ of 2.64 x 10-26, which is in fact not a constant but rather a function of the photon energy. A linear relationship between Z2.94 has been shown for a limited number of compounds for low-energy x-rays, but within the same publication it is shown that many compounds do not lie on the same trendline (Spiers et al. 1946). As such, for polyenergetic photon sources (in particular, for applications such as radiotherapy), the effective atomic number varies significantly with energy (Taylor et al. 2008). As shown by Taylor et al. (2008), it is possible to obtain a much more accurate single-valued Zeff by weighting against the spectrum of the source. The effective atomic number for electron interactions may be calculated with a similar approach (Taylor et al. 2009).
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