Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

3.2: Chemical Bonds

  • Page ID
    37952
  • Chemical bonds form when electrons can be simultaneously close to two or more nuclei, but beyond this, there is no simple, easily understood theory that would not only explain why atoms bind together to form molecules, but would also predict the three-dimensional structures of the resulting compounds as well as the energies and other properties of the bonds themselves. Unfortunately, no one theory exists that accomplishes these goals in a satisfactory way for all of the many categories of compounds that are known. Moreover, it seems likely that if such a theory does ever come into being, it will be far from simple.

    When we are faced with a scientific problem of this complexity, experience has shown that it is often more useful to concentrate instead on developing models. A scientific model is something like a theory in that it should be able to explain observed phenomena and to make useful predictions. But whereas a theory can be discredited by a single contradictory case, a model can be useful even if it does not encompass all instances of the phenomena it attempts to explain. We do not even require that a model be a credible representation of reality; all we ask is that be able to explain the behavior of those cases to which it is applicable in terms that are consistent with the model itself. An example of a model that you may already know about is the kinetic molecular theory of gases. Despite its name, this is really a model (at least at the level that beginning students use it) because it does not even try to explain the observed behavior of real gases. Nevertheless, it serves as a tool for developing our understanding of gases, and as a starting point for more elaborate treatments.

    Given the extraordinary variety of ways in which atoms combine into aggregates, it should come as no surprise that a number of useful bonding models have been developed. Most of them apply only to certain classes of compounds, or attempt to explain only a restricted range of phenomena. In this section we will provide brief descriptions of some of the bonding models; the more important of these will be treated in much more detail in later parts of this chapter.

    Ionic Bonding

    Ever since the discovery early in the 19th century that solutions of salts and other electrolytes conduct electric current, there has been general agreement that the forces that hold atoms together must be electrical in nature. Electrolytic solutions contain ions having opposite electrical charges, opposite charges attract, so perhaps the substances from which these ions come consist of positive and negatively charged atoms held together by electrostatic attraction.

    It turns out that this is not true generally, but a model built on this assumption does a fairly good job of explaining a rather small but important class of compounds that are called ionic solids. The most well known example of such a compound is sodium chloride, which consists of two interpenetrating lattices of Na+ and Cl ions arranged in such as way that every ion of one type is surrounded (in three dimensional space) by six ions of opposite charge.

    The main limitation of this model is that it applies really well only to the small class of solids composed of Group 1 and 2 elements with highly electronegative elements such as the halogens. Although compounds such as CuCl2 dissociate into ions when they dissolve in water, the fundamental units making up the solid are more like polymeric chains of covalently-bound CuCl2 molecules that have little ionic character.

    According to the ionic electrostatic model, solids such as NaCl consist of positive and negative ions arranged in a crystal lattice. Each ion is attracted to neighboring ions of opposite charge, and is repelled by ions of like charge; this combination of attractions and repulsions, acting in all directions, causes the ion to be tightly fixed in its own location in the crystal lattice.

    Since electrostatic forces are nondirectional, the structure of an ionic solid is determined purely by geometry: two kinds of ions, each with its own radius, will fall into whatever repeating pattern will achieve the lowest possible potential energy. Surprisingly, there are only a small number of possible structures

    Covalent Bonding

    This model originated with the theory developed by G.N. Lewis in 1916, and it remains the most widely-used model of chemical bonding. The essential element s of this model can best be understood by examining the simplest possible molecule. This is the hydrogen molecule ion H2+, which consists of two nuclei and one electron.

    First, however, think what would happen if we tried to make the even simpler molecule H22+. Since this would consist only of two protons whose electrostatic charges would repel each other at all distances, it is clear that such a molecule cannot exist; something more than two nuclei are required for bonding to occur.

    In the hydrogen molecule ion H2+ we have a third particle, an electron. The effect of this electron will depend on its location with respect to the two nuclei. If the electron is in the space between the two nuclei, it will attract both protons toward itself, and thus toward each other. If the total attraction energy exceeds the internuclear repulsion, there will be a net bonding effect and the molecule will be stable. If, on the other hand, the electron is off to one side, it will attract both nuclei, but it will attract the closer one much more strongly, owing to the inverse-square nature of Coulomb's law. As a consequence, the electron will now help the electrostatic repulsion to push the two nuclei apart.

    We see, then, that the electron is an essential component of a chemical bond, but that it must be in the right place: between the two nuclei. Coulomb's law can be used to calculate the forces experienced by the two nuclei for various positions of the electron. This allows us to define two regions of space about the nuclei, as shown in the figure. One region, the binding region, depicts locations at which the electron exerts a net binding effect on the new nuclei. Outside of this, in the antibinding region, the electron will actually work against binding.

    This simple picture illustrates the number one rule of chemical bonding: chemical bonds form when electrons can be simultaneously close to two or more nuclei. It should be pointed out that this principle applies also to the ionic model; as will be explained later in this chapter, the electron that is "lost" by a positive ion ends up being closer to more nuclei (including the one from whose electron cloud it came) in the compound.

    • The polar covalent model: A purely covalent bond can only be guaranteed when the electronegativities (electron-attracting powers) of the two atoms are identical. When atoms having different electronegativities are joined, the electrons shared between them will be displaced toward the more electronegative atom, conferring a polarity on the bond which can be described in terms of percent ionic character. The polar covalent model is thus an generalization of covalent bonding to include a very wide range of behavior.
    • The Coulombic model: This is an extension of the ionic model to compounds that are ordinarily considered to be non-ionic. Combined hydrogen is always considered to exist as the hydride ion H, so that methane can be treated as if it were C4+ H–4. This is not as bizarre as it might seem at first if you recall that the proton has almost no significant size, so that it is essentially embedded in an electron pair when it is joined to another atom in a covalent bond. This model, which is not as well known as it deserves to be, has considerable predictive power, both as to bond energies and structures.
    • The VSEPR model: The "valence shell electron repulsion" model is not so much a model of chemical bonding as a scheme for explaining the shapes of molecules. It is based on the quantum mechanical view that bonds represent electron clouds- physical regions of negative electric charge that repel each other and thus try to stay as far apart as possible.

    Summary

    The covalent bond is formed when two atoms are able to share electrons:

    whereas the ionic bond is formed when the "sharing" is so unequal that an electron from atom A is completely lost to atom B, resulting in a pair of ions:

    The two extremes of electron sharing represented by the covalent and ionic models appear to be generally consistent with the observed properties of molecular and ionic solids and liquids. But does this mean that there are really two kinds of chemical bonds, ionic and covalent?

    Contributors