nonmetal, chemical element possessing certain properties by which it is distinguished from a metal. In general, this distinction is drawn on the basis that a nonmetal tends to accept electrons and form negative ions and that its oxide is acidic. Nonmetals are poor conductors of heat and electricity (see conduction) and do not have the luster of metals. Arsenic, antimony, selenium, and tellurium exhibit both nonmetallic and metallic properties and are called metalloids. Unlike the metals, which are all solids (with the exception of mercury) under ordinary conditions of temperature and pressure, the nonmetals appear in all three states. Argon, chlorine, fluorine, helium, hydrogen, krypton, neon, nitrogen, oxygen, and xenon are normally gases. Bromine is a liquid. Boron, carbon, iodine, phosphorus, silicon, and sulfur are solids. Certain of them, e.g., boron, carbon, iodine, silicon, and sulfur, form crystals, as do the metals. In hardness they vary considerably. Carbon in its allotropic form, the diamond, is the hardest element known. With the exception of carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, and the inert gases—argon, helium, krypton, neon, and xenon—the nonmetals do not occur uncombined in nature, but exist in numerous relatively abundant compounds, among which are the oxides, halides (binary halogen compounds), sulfides, carbonates, nitrates, phosphates, silicates, and sulfates. With a few exceptions, the nonmetallic elements are important chiefly for their compounds. For the properties and uses of specific nonmetals, see the separate articles on these elements.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.