When a stable atom gains or loses electrons, it becomes an "Ion" . Since the charge of the electron (considered negative by convention) is equal and opposite to that of the proton (considered positive by convention), the net charge of an ion is non-zero due to its total number of electrons being unequal to its total number of protons. A cation is a positively charged ion, with fewer electrons than protons, while an anion is negatively charged, with more electrons than protons. Because of their opposite electric charges, cations and anions attract each other and readily form ionic compounds.
Svante Arrhenius put forth, in his 1884 dissertation, his explanation of the fact that solid crystalline salts dissociate into paired charged particles when dissolved, for which he would win the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Arrhenius' explanation was that in forming a solution, the salt dissociates into Faraday's ions. Arrhenius proposed that ions formed even in the absence of an electric current.
Ions in their gas-like state are highly reactive and will rapidly interact with ions of opposite charge to give neutral molecules or ionic salts. Ions are also produced in the liquid or solid state when salts interact with solvents (for example, water) to produce solvated ions, which are more stable, for reasons involving a combination of energy and entropy changes as the ions move away from each other to interact with the liquid. These stabilized species are more commonly found in the environment at low temperatures. A common example is the ions present in seawater, which are derived from dissolved salts.
Electrons, due to their smaller mass and thus larger space-filling properties as matter waves, determine the size of atoms and molecules that possess any electrons at all. Thus, anions (negatively charged ions) are larger than the parent molecule or atom, as the excess electron(s) repel each other and add to the physical size of the ion, because its size is determined by its electron cloud. Cations are smaller than the corresponding parent atom or molecule due to the smaller size of the electron cloud. One particular cation (that of hydrogen) contains no electrons, and thus consists of a single proton - much smaller than the parent hydrogen atom.
There are additional names used for ions with multiple charges. For example, an ion with a 2 charge is known as a dianion and an ion with a +2 charge is known as a dication. A zwitterion is a neutral molecule with positive and negative charges at different locations within that molecule.
Ions are ubiquitous in nature and are responsible for diverse phenomena from the luminescence of the Sun to the existence of the Earth's ionosphere. Atoms in their ionic state may have a different colour from neutral atoms, and thus light absorption by metal ions gives the colour of gemstones. In both inorganic and organic chemistry (including biochemistry), the interaction of water and ions is extremely important; an example is energy that drives the breakdown of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The following sections describe contexts in which ions feature prominently; these are arranged in decreasing physical length-scale, from the astronomical to the microscopic.
If an ion contains unpaired electrons, it is called a radical ion. Just like uncharged radicals, radical ions are very reactive. Polyatomic ions containing oxygen, such as carbonate and sulfate, are called oxyanions. Molecular ions that contain at least one carbon to hydrogen bond are called organic ions. If the charge in an organic ion is formally centred on a carbon, it is termed a carbocation (if positively charged) or carbanion (if negatively charged).
Atoms can be ionized by bombardment with radiation, but the more usual process of ionization encountered in chemistry is the transfer of electrons between atoms or molecules. This transfer is usually driven by the attaining of stable ("closed shell") electronic configurations. Atoms will gain or lose electrons depending on which action takes the least energy.
The most common type of ionic bonding is seen in compounds of metals and nonmetals (except noble gases, which rarely form chemical compounds). Metals are characterized by having a small number of electrons in excess of a stable, closed-shell electronic configuration. As such, they have the tendency to lose these extra electrons in order to attain a stable configuration. This property is known as electropositivity. Non-metals, on the other hand, are characterized by having an electron configuration just a few electrons short of a stable configuration. As such, they have the tendency to gain more electrons in order to achieve a stable configuration. This tendency is known as electronegativity. When a highly electropositive metal is combined with a highly electronegative nonmetal, the extra electrons from the metal atoms are transferred to the electron-deficient nonmetal atoms. This reaction produces metal cations and nonmetal anions, which are attracted to each other to form a salt.