energy levels

A quantum mechanical system or particle that is bound—that is, confined spatially—can only take on certain discrete values of energy. This contrasts with classical particles, which can have any energy. These discrete values are called energy levels. The term is commonly used for the energy levels of electrons in atoms, ions, or molecules, which are bound by the electric field of the nucleus, but can also refer to energy levels of nuclei or vibrational or rotational energy levels in molecules. The energy spectrum of a system with such discrete energy levels is said to be quantized. If the potential energy is set to zero at infinite distance from the atomic nucleus or molecule, the usual convention, then bound electron states have negative potential energy. 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.

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