Angstrom: The Tiny Unit That Measures Atoms

What is an Angstrom?

An angstrom (Å) is a unit of length equal to 10-10 meters or 0.1 nanometers. It is named after the Swedish physicist Anders Jonas Ångström, who first used it to measure the wavelengths of light. The angstrom is an extremely small unit, roughly the size of an atom. It is commonly used in fields such as nanotechnology, crystallography, and spectroscopy to measure atomic and molecular structures.

Angstrom vs. Other Units

The angstrom is related to other units of length as follows:
  • 1 Å = 10-10 meters
  • 1 Å = 0.1 nanometers
  • 1 Å = 100 picometers
  • 1010 Å = 1 meter
While the angstrom is still widely used in some fields, the International System of Units (SI) recommends using the nanometer (nm) or picometer (pm) instead. However, many scientific publications and databases continue to use angstroms for consistency with older literature and ease of use when discussing atomic-scale structures.

Applications of Angstroms

Angstroms are used in various scientific and technological applications, including:


In crystallography, angstroms are used to measure the distances between atoms in a crystal lattice. X-ray diffraction techniques can determine the arrangement of atoms in a crystal by measuring the angles and intensities of diffracted X-rays, which have wavelengths in the angstrom range. This information is crucial for understanding the structure and properties of materials.


Angstroms are used to measure the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, particularly in the visible and ultraviolet range. Many atomic and molecular transitions occur at energies corresponding to wavelengths in the angstrom range. Spectroscopic techniques, such as absorption and emission spectroscopy, use angstroms to identify and quantify chemical species based on their characteristic spectra.


In nanotechnology, angstroms are used to describe the sizes and distances of nanomaterials and nanostructures. Many nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, and MXenes, have dimensions in the angstrom range. Understanding and controlling the structure of materials at the angstrom scale is essential for developing new technologies with enhanced properties and performance.

Chemical Bonding

Angstroms are used to describe the lengths of chemical bonds between atoms in molecules and materials. Typical bond lengths range from about 1 to 3 Å, depending on the type of bond and the elements involved. Covalent bonds, such as those in organic molecules, tend to be shorter (around 1-2 Å), while ionic and metallic bonds can be longer (up to 3 Å or more).

Historical Context

The angstrom was first introduced by Anders Jonas Ångström in 1868 as a convenient unit for measuring the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum. Ångström noticed that the bright lines in the solar spectrum had wavelengths that were whole multiples of a small unit, which he defined as 10-10 meters. This unit was later named the angstrom in his honor.
In the early 20th century, the angstrom became widely used in physics and chemistry to describe atomic and molecular structures. With the advent of quantum mechanics and the development of techniques like X-ray crystallography, scientists could determine the precise distances between atoms in molecules and crystals, which were conveniently expressed in angstroms.
Today, while the angstrom remains a popular unit in many fields, the SI system recommends using the nanometer or picometer for consistency and clarity. Nonetheless, the angstrom's historical significance and practicality in describing atomic-scale structures ensure its continued use in scientific literature and discussions.