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Elements and Compounds

Throughout history, humans have been curious to know what constitutes things. Many ideas were propagated and it was only in the late nineteenth century that the idea of atoms and molecules could be verified. This idea also gave birth to the concept of elements and compounds-the most fundamental basis of classification of substances.

Elements and compounds are scientifically pure substances. It means that they cannot be broken down into their constituents by physical processes. In fact, in the case of elements, they cannot be broken down into any more substances since they are made up of the same kind of substances which are the most basic form of matter constituting that particular element. Compounds, on the other hand, are made up of two or more elements chemically bonded together.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mixtures, which are not pure substances and can be separated into their constituents by physical processes. Their constituents are not chemically bonded to each other.

History of Elements

Ancient Greeks had theorised that all matter was essentially made up of five elements-fire, air, water, ether and earth. The ancient Indians had a similar theory. However, later Greeks  and Indians acknowledged the existence of atoms as the smallest form of matter.

Some elements like gold, silver and iron have been known to humans for thousands of years. However, the first scientific discovery of an element was made by discovering phosphorus by Henning Brand.

Over the years, several attempts were made to organise the list of known elements. This led to the invention of periodic tales. A Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev is often referred to as the “father of the periodic table”. At present, around 118 elements have been discovered. Each element has a unique atomic number in the periodic table.

History of Compounds

The history of Compounds is no less interesting. However, in the late eighteenth century, it was difficult for scientists to distinguish compounds as separate entities from mixtures. According to Dalton, the chemical composition of compounds remained fixed. However, the scientists had a hard time proving this.

Two sets of arguments were placed in this case. A French chemist, Claude Louis Bethollet was against the idea that compounds had a fixed composition and were different from mixtures. He used the example of metal oxides as his argument. According to him, when a metal is heated at different temperatures, the composition of the oxide changes. He was refuted by his fellow countryman Joseph Proust. According to Proust, metals form different oxides at different temperatures which are not the same compound. Hence the composition of a particular compound remains constant. He also argued that the scientific discovery was not advanced back then to precisely determine the chemical composition of substances and that nominal changes in composition could be attributed to human imprecision. His arguments finally took over and today, there is no scientist who denies that compounds are in fact, different from mixtures. However, even Proust had difficulties explaining the case of Alloys. Today we know that alloys are actually mixtures since they display the properties of their individual constituents.

Types of Elements

Elements can be roughly classified into metals, nonmetals and metalloids. 

The metals can be found on the left side of the periodic table. Metals have a few special characteristics or properties which distinguishes them from non-metals. These characteristics are as follows:

  • Ductility
  • Malleability
  • Thermal and heat conductivity
  • Sonorousness
  • Lustre

Some examples of metal are iron, copper etc.

Non-metals, in contrast, are found on the right side of the periodic table. These do not display the special characteristics of metals and are known as poor conductors. Some examples of non-metal are oxygen, carbon etc.

Metalloids form the borderline between metals and nonmetals. They show some characteristics of metals and some of the non-metals. Some examples are silicon and arsenic.

Types of Compounds

Compounds are actually a group of two or more elements chemically bonded together. Although the components of a compound cannot be separated by physical processes, it is possible to do so by using chemical reactions. The various types of compounds are listed below:

  • Molecular Compounds (chemically held by covalent bonds
  • Intermetallic Compounds(chemically held by ionic bonds)
  • Ionic Compounds(chemically held by metallic bonds)
  • Coordinate covalent bonds holding complexes

Comparison and Differences


  1. Elements: Composed of the same kind of particles(atoms).
  2. Compounds: Composed of two or more elements chemically bonded together in a fixed proportion by mass.

Ability to Break Down

  1. Elements: Elements cannot be broken down into any more basic constituents by any physical or chemical processes.
  2. Compounds: Compounds can be broken down into their constituents by chemical processes.


  1. Elements: They are represented by their unique symbols from the periodic table.
  2. Compounds: They are represented using chemical formulae derived from their constituents.


  1. Elements: Classified as metals, nonmetals and metalloids based on properties.
  2. Compounds: Classified based on the chemical bonds holding the constituents together in a compound.


  1. Elements: Oxygen, Iron, Gold, Aluminium etc.
  2. Compounds: Water, Aqua Regia, Sodium Hydroxide etc.


Substances found in nature have been classified as pure substances and mixtures. Pure substances include elements and compounds and cannot be broken down into their constituents by physical processes. Mixtures can be broken down into their components by physical processes. Elements are made up of the same kind of particles, while compounds are made up of two or more elements chemically bonded together in a fixed proportion by mass.



Frequently asked questions

Get answers to the most common queries related to the JEE Examination Preparation.

What are elements and compounds?

Answer: Elements are pure substances made up of the same kind of particles, while compounds are also pure substances...Read full

How are compounds different from mixtures?

Answer:The components of a compound remain fixed in composition and do not break down by physical processes....Read full

Give the types of elements?

Answer: The types of elements are metals, nonmetals and metalloids

What differentiates elements from compounds?

Answer: The main characteristic that separates elements from compounds is composition. While elements are made up of...Read full