A neutral atom or group of atoms becomes an ion by gaining or losing one or more electrons or protons. Since the electron and proton have equal but opposite unit charges, the charge of an ion is always expressed as a whole number of unit charges and is either positive or negative. A simple ion consists of only one charged atom; a complex ion consists of an aggregate of atoms with a net charge. If an atom or group loses electrons or gains protons, it will have a net positive charge and is called a cation. If an atom or group gains electrons or loses protons, it will have a net negative charge and is called an anion.
Since ordinary matter is electrically neutral, ions normally exist as groups of cations and anions such that the sum total of positive and negative charges is zero. In common table salt, or sodium chloride, NaCl, the sodium cations, Na+, are neutralized by chlorine anions, Cl - . In the salt sodium carbonate, Na2CO3, two sodium cations are needed to neutralize each carbonate anion, CO3 - 2, because its charge is twice that of the sodium ion.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.