Is oxygen stable with 8 electrons?

Oxygen is one of the most abundant and important elements on earth. With an atomic number of 8, oxygen has 8 protons and usually 8 neutrons, giving it a mass number of 16. Oxygen commonly exists in nature as O2, with each oxygen atom making 2 covalent bonds and having 6 valence electrons. However, there have been some observations and theoretical studies into the possibility of oxygen existing in an excited state with 8 valence electrons instead of 6. This raises an interesting question – can oxygen remain stable with a full octet of 8 electrons?

Normal State of Oxygen

Under normal conditions, oxygen exists as a diatomic O2 molecule. Each oxygen atom forms two covalent bonds with the other oxygen atom, resulting in a double bond. This satisfies the octet rule, with each oxygen having 6 valence electrons – 2 from its own electrons, and 4 from the shared bonding electrons with the other oxygen atom. This makes oxygen very stable under standard conditions.

Oxygen has the electron configuration 1s2 2s2 2p4. The 1s and 2s orbitals are filled, while the three 2p orbitals contain 4 electrons. To obtain an octet configuration, oxygen forms two more bonds, each sharing two electrons. This results in the typical O2 state with two double bonds and satisfies the octet rule that elements are most stable with 8 valence electrons.

Reasons for Oxygen’s Stability with 6 Electrons

There are several reasons why oxygen is stable with only 6 valence electrons in its normal O2 state:

  • The shared electrons in the double bonds have a strong attraction to the oxygen nuclei, satisfying the octet rule.
  • The filled valence shell is energetically favorable and lowers potential energy.
  • The repulsion between the six pairs of valence electrons balances out against the attraction to the nucleus.
  • Adding more electrons would require placing them in higher energy anti-bonding molecular orbitals, which is unfavorable.
  • The O2 molecule has no lone pairs, minimizing inter-electron repulsion.

Overall, the bonding configuration of O2 allows each oxygen atom to have an effective octet configuration with minimal energy, making it highly stable compared to alternative structures with additional electrons.

Possibility of Excited States with 8 Electrons

While oxygen is most often found in its ground state O2 configuration, there have been some observations and theoretical studies indicating that excited states with 8 valence electrons are possible.

Experimental Evidence

Some experimental studies have provided evidence for the existence of transient oxygen species with additional electrons:

  • Spectroscopic studies of oxygen bonding to metal surfaces suggests charge transfer occurs, resulting in superoxide (O2-) and peroxide (O2 2-) ions with additional electrons.
  • Photoelectron spectroscopy measurements demonstrated oxidation states of -1 and -2 for oxygen on silver and gold surfaces.
  • Anionic oxygen clusters with 8-20 oxygen atoms were produced experimentally and shown to have additional electrons through mass spectrometry.
  • Chemical reactivity studies inferred the formation of short-lived oxygen species with higher electron counts when bonded to certain metal catalysts.

While many of these observations are for oxygen interacting with surfaces or in clusters, they provide evidence that excited states with extra electrons can temporarily exist.

Theoretical Predictions

Theoretical calculations have also predicted excited states of oxygen with 8 electrons:

  • Electronic structure calculations show an electronically excited state of O2 is possible at 7.5eV above the ground state.
  • This excited state involves moving an electron from the bonding to anti-bonding molecular orbital, giving each oxygen 8 electrons.
  • However, this state was calculated to have a lifetime of only 10-9 s before decaying back to the ground state.
  • Computations suggest peroxide O22- and superoxide O2 ions are metastable and can temporarily exist.
  • There are repulsive forces between the extra electrons which destabilize these states over nanosecond timescales.

Therefore, while energetic inputs can create temporary excited states of oxygen with 8 electrons, these states are predicted to rapidly decay back to the stable ground state O2 configuration.

Requirements for Stability with 8 Electrons

Based on experimental and theoretical insights, here are some key requirements that would be needed to achieve stable forms of oxygen with a full octet of 8 electrons:

  • Binding Partners: Oxygen may remain stable with 8 electrons when interacting with metal surfaces or bound in clusters.
  • Low Temperatures: Cryogenic cooling could extend lifetimes of excited states by reducing decay rates.
  • Confinement: Encapsulating oxygen in nanoscale cages may stabilize unusual structures.
  • Doping: Adding impurity atoms or charge transfer could donate additional electrons.
  • Energy Inputs: Continuous excitation could maintain non-equilibrium electron configurations.

However, even with these conditions, states with 8 electrons are not expected to persist indefinitely. The ground state O2 represents the minimum energy configuration, making complete stability with an octet unlikely.

Insights from Other Elements

Looking at other elements can provide useful comparisons for understanding oxygen’s electron configurations.

Sulfur and Selenium

Sulfur and selenium are in the same group as oxygen and show some similarities:

  • Sulfur forms stable S8 rings in which each S has 8 valence electrons.
  • Selenium forms similar Se8 rings and has a metastable allotrope with an O2 structure.
  • This suggests having 8 electrons may be more favorable for heavier chalcogens.

However, sulfur and selenium have lower electronegativity and more diffuse outer electron clouds. This reduces electron repulsion, facilitating stable octets. In contrast, oxygen’s high electronegativity makes complete octets more difficult.


The halogens provide an example of stable monoatomic elements with filled octets:

  • Fluorine (F2), chlorine (Cl2), and bromine (Br2) all have stable single bonds as diatomic molecules.
  • Their weaker bonding allows stable lone pairs to complete octets on each atom.
  • Oxygen’s tendency for multiple bonding prevents lone pairs within a stable O2 molecule.

So while halogens can achieve stable filled octets, oxygen’s properties drive it to form multiple bonds with only 6 electrons.


In summary, oxygen is highly stable in its normal O2 configuration with 6 valence electrons on each atom. While transient excited states with 8 electrons are possible, the ground state double-bonded structure represents the lowest energy and most stable form of oxygen under normal conditions. Achieving persistent stability with a full octet would require special conditions to overcome the intrinsic electronic properties of oxygen that favor its typical bonding behavior with 6 electrons.

Oxygen’s stability with 6 electrons can ultimately be attributed to the balance between inter-electron repulsion, attraction to the nuclei, and bond strength. The O2 ground state strikes the optimal balance between these factors. Therefore, while occasional exceptions may occur, oxygen will remain stable with an octet of just 6 electrons in the vast majority of cases.

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