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6.3: Forces between Molecules

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe the types of intermolecular forces possible between atoms or molecules in condensed phases (dispersion forces, dipole-dipole attractions, and hydrogen bonding)
    • Identify the types of intermolecular forces experienced by specific molecules based on their structures

    Under appropriate conditions, the attractions between all gas molecules will cause them to form liquids or solids. This is due to intermolecular forces, not intramolecular forces. Intramolecular forces are those within the molecule that keep the molecule together, for example, the bonds between the atoms. Intermolecular forces are the attractions between molecules, which determine many of the physical properties of a substance. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) illustrates these different molecular forces. The strengths of these attractive forces vary widely, though usually the IMFs between small molecules are weak compared to the intramolecular forces that bond atoms together within a molecule. For example, to overcome the IMFs in one mole of liquid HCl and convert it into gaseous HCl requires only about 17 kilojoules. However, to break the covalent bonds between the hydrogen and chlorine atoms in one mole of HCl requires about 25 times more energy—430 kilojoules.

    An image is shown in which two molecules composed of a green sphere labeled “C l” connected on the right to a white sphere labeled “H” are near one another with a dotted line labeled “Intermolecular force ( weak )” drawn between them. A line connects the two spheres in each molecule and the line is labeled “Intramolecular force ( strong ).”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Intramolecular forces keep a molecule intact. Intermolecular forces hold multiple molecules together and determine many of a substance’s properties.

    Dipole–Dipole Forces

    Dipole-dipole forces are the attractive forces that occur between polar molecules (see figure below). A molecule of hydrogen chloride has a partially positive hydrogen atom and a partially negative chlorine atom. A collection of many hydrogen chloride molecules will align themselves so that the oppositely charged regions of neighboring molecules are near each other.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Dipole-dipole forces result from the attraction between the positive end of one dipole and the negative end of a neighboring dipole. Dipole-dipole forces are similar to ionic bonds, but because they involve only partial charges, they are much weaker.

    The strength of the intermolecular interactions increases as the dipole moment of the molecules increases, as shown in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Relationships between the Dipole Moment and the Boiling Point for Organic Compounds of Similar Molar Mass
    Compound Molar Mass (g/mol) Dipole Moment (D) Boiling Point (K)
    C3H6 (cyclopropane) 42 0 240
    CH3OCH3 (dimethyl ether) 46 1.30 248
    CH3CN (acetonitrile) 41 3.9 355

    The attractive energy between two ions is proportional to 1/r, whereas the attractive energy between two dipoles is proportional to 1/r6.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\) Dipole-Dipole Forces and Their Effects

    Predict which will have the higher boiling point: N2 or CO. Explain your reasoning.


    CO and N2 are both diatomic molecules with masses of about 28 amu, so they experience similar London dispersion forces. Because CO is a polar molecule, it experiences dipole-dipole attractions. Because N2 is nonpolar, its molecules cannot exhibit dipole-dipole attractions. The dipole-dipole attractions between CO molecules are comparably stronger than the dispersion forces between nonpolar N2 molecules, so CO is expected to have the higher boiling point.

    A common method for preparing oxygen is the decomposition

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Predict which will have the higher boiling point: \(\ce{ICl}\) or \(\ce{Br2}\). Explain your reasoning.


    ICl. ICl and Br2 have similar masses (~160 amu) and therefore experience similar London dispersion forces. ICl is polar and thus also exhibits dipole-dipole attractions; Br2 is nonpolar and does not. The relatively stronger dipole-dipole attractions require more energy to overcome, so ICl will have the higher boiling point

    Dispersion Forces

    Dispersion forces are the weakest of all intermolecular forces. They are often called London forces after Fritz London (1900 - 1954), who first proposed their existence in 1930. London dispersion forces are intermolecular forces that occur between all atoms and molecules due to the random motion of electrons.

    For example, the electron cloud of a helium atom contains two electrons, and, when averaged over time, these electrons will distribute themselves evenly around the nucleus. However, at any given moment, the electron distribution may be uneven, resulting in an instantaneous dipole. This weak and temporary dipole can subsequently influence neighboring helium atoms through electrostatic attraction and repulsion. The formation of an induced dipole is illustrated below.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) Random fluctuations in the electron density within the electron cloud of a helium atom results in a short-lived ("instantaneous") dipole. The attractive force between instantaneous dipoles and the resulting induced dipoles in neighboring molecules is called the London dispersion force.

    Dispersion forces that develop between atoms in different molecules can attract the two molecules to each other. The forces are relatively weak, however, and become significant only when the molecules are very close. Larger and heavier atoms and molecules exhibit stronger dispersion forces than do smaller and lighter atoms and molecules. F2 and Cl2 are gases at room temperature (reflecting weaker attractive forces); Br2 is a liquid, and I2 is a solid (reflecting stronger attractive forces). Trends in observed melting and boiling points for the halogens clearly demonstrate this effect, as seen in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Melting and Boiling Points of the Halogens
    Halogen Molar Mass Atomic Radius Melting Point Boiling Point
    fluorine, F2 38 g/mol 72 pm 53 K 85 K
    chlorine, Cl2 71 g/mol 99 pm 172 K 238 K
    bromine, Br2 160 g/mol 114 pm 266 K 332 K
    iodine, I2 254 g/mol 133 pm 387 K 457 K
    astatine, At2 420 g/mol 150 pm 575 K 610 K

    The increase in melting and boiling points with increasing atomic/molecular size may be rationalized by considering how the strength of dispersion forces is affected by the electronic structure of the atoms or molecules in the substance. In a larger atom, the valence electrons are, on average, farther from the nuclei than in a smaller atom. Thus, they are less tightly held and can more easily form the temporary dipoles that produce the attraction. The measure of how easy or difficult it is for another electrostatic charge (for example, a nearby ion or polar molecule) to distort a molecule’s charge distribution (its electron cloud) is known as polarizability. A molecule that has a charge cloud that is easily distorted is said to be very polarizable and will have large dispersion forces; one with a charge cloud that is difficult to distort is not very polarizable and will have small dispersion forces.

    For similar substances, London dispersion forces get stronger with increasing atomic or molecular size.

    The strengths of London dispersion forces also depend significantly on molecular shape because shape determines how much of one molecule can interact with its neighboring molecules at any given time. For example, part (b) in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) shows 2,2-dimethylpropane (neopentane) and n-pentane, both of which have the empirical formula C5H12. Neopentane is almost spherical, with a small surface area for intermolecular interactions, whereas n-pentane has an extended conformation that enables it to come into close contact with other n-pentane molecules. As a result, the boiling point of neopentane (9.5°C) is more than 25°C lower than the boiling point of n-pentane (36.1°C).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) Mass and Surface Area Affect the Strength of London Dispersion Forces. (a) In this series of four simple alkanes, larger molecules have stronger London forces between them than smaller molecules and consequently higher boiling points. (b) Linear n-pentane molecules have a larger surface area and stronger intermolecular forces than spherical neopentane molecules. As a result, neopentane is a gas at room temperature, whereas n-pentane is a volatile liquid.

    London dispersion forces

    All molecules, whether polar or nonpolar, are attracted to one another by London dispersion forces in addition to any other attractive forces that may be present.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\) London Forces and Their Effects

    Order the following compounds of a group 14 element and hydrogen from lowest to highest boiling point: CH4, SiH4, GeH4, and SnH4. Explain your reasoning.

    Given: compounds

    Asked for: order of increasing boiling points


    Determine the intermolecular forces in the compound. Also, compare the molar masses and surface area of compounds with similar types of intermolecular force. The substance with the weakest forces and the lowest molar masses and least surface area have the lowest boiling point.


    Applying the skills acquired in the chapter on chemical bonding and molecular geometry, all of these compounds are predicted to be nonpolar, so they may experience only dispersion forces: the smaller the molecule, the less polarizable and the weaker the dispersion forces; the larger the molecule, the larger the dispersion forces. The molar masses of CH4, SiH4, GeH4, and SnH4 are approximately 16 g/mol, 32 g/mol, 77 g/mol, and 123 g/mol, respectively. Therefore, CH4 is expected to have the lowest boiling point and SnH4 the highest boiling point. The ordering from lowest to highest boiling point is expected to be

    CH4 < SiH4 < GeH4 < SnH4

    A graph of the actual boiling points of these compounds versus the period of the group 14 elements shows this prediction to be correct:

    A line graph, titled “Carbon Family,” is shown where the y-axis is labeled “Temperature, ( degree sign C )” and has values of “negative 200” to “negative 40” from bottom to top in increments of 20. The x-axis is labeled “Period” and has values of “0” to “5” in increments of 1. The first point on the graph is labeled “C H subscript 4” and is at point “2, negative 160.” The second point on the graph is labeled “S i H subscript 4” and is at point “3, negative 120” while the third point on the graph is labeled “G e H subscript 4” and is at point “4, negative 100.” The fourth point on the graph is labeled “S n H subscript 4” and is at point “5, negative 60.”

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Order the following hydrocarbons from lowest to highest boiling point: C2H6, C3H8, and C4H10.


    All of these compounds are nonpolar and only have London dispersion forces: the larger the molecule, the larger the dispersion forces and the higher the boiling point. The ordering from lowest to highest boiling point is therefore

    C2H6 < C3H8 < C4H10.

    Hydrogen Bonds

    The attractive force between water molecules is an unusually strong type of dipole-dipole interaction. Water contains hydrogen atoms that are bound to a highly electronegative oxygen atom, making for very polar bonds. The partially positive hydrogen atom of one molecule is then attracted to the oxygen atom of a nearby water molecule (see figure below).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) A hydrogen bond in water occurs between the hydrogen atom of one water molecule and the lone pair of electrons on the oxygen atom of a neighboring water molecule.

    A hydrogen bond is an intermolecular attractive force in which a hydrogen atom, that is covalently bonded to a small, highly electronegative atom, is attracted to a lone pair of electrons on an atom in a neighboring molecule. Hydrogen bonds are very strong compared to other dipole-dipole interactions, but still much weaker than a covalent bond. A typical hydrogen bond is about \(5\%\) as strong as a covalent bond.

    Hydrogen bonding occurs only in molecules where hydrogen is covalently bonded to one of three elements: fluorine, oxygen, or nitrogen. These three elements are so electronegative that they withdraw the majority of the electron density from the covalent bond with hydrogen, leaving the \(\ce{H}\) atom very electron-deficient. Because the hydrogen atom does not have any electrons other than the ones in the covalent bond, its positively charged nucleus is almost completely exposed, allowing strong attractions to other nearby lone pairs of electrons.

    The hydrogen bonding that occurs in water leads to some unusual, but very important properties. Most molecular compounds that have a mass similar to water are gases at room temperature. However, because of the strong hydrogen bonds, water molecules are able to stay condensed in the liquid state. The figure below shows how its bent shape and the presence of two hydrogen atoms per molecule allows each water molecule to hydrogen bond with several other molecules.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)Multiple hydrogen bonds occur simultaneously in water because of its bent shape and the presence of two hydrogen atoms per molecule.

    In the liquid state, the hydrogen bonds of water can break and reform as the molecules flow from one place to another. When water is cooled, the molecules begin to slow down. Eventually, when water is frozen to ice, the hydrogen bonds become more rigid and form a well-defined network (Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\)). The bent shape of the molecules leads to gaps in the hydrogen bonding network of ice. Ice has the very unusual property that its solid state is less dense than its liquid state. As a result, ice floats in liquid water. Virtually all other substances are denser in the solid state than in the liquid state. Hydrogen bonds also play a very important biological role in the physical structures of proteins and nucleic acids.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\) The Hydrogen-Bonded Structure of Ice.

    Hydrogen bond formation requires both a hydrogen bond donor and a hydrogen bond acceptor.

    Because ice is less dense than liquid water, rivers, lakes, and oceans freeze from the top down. In fact, the ice forms a protective surface layer that insulates the rest of the water, allowing fish and other organisms to survive in the lower levels of a frozen lake or sea. If ice were denser than the liquid, the ice formed at the surface in cold weather would sink as fast as it formed. Bodies of water would freeze from the bottom up, which would be lethal for most aquatic creatures. The expansion of water when freezing also explains why automobile or boat engines must be protected by “antifreeze” and why unprotected pipes in houses break if they are allowed to freeze.

    Strength of Intermolecular Forces

    Molecules with hydrogen atoms bonded to electronegative atoms such as O, N, and F tend to exhibit unusually strong intermolecular interactions due to hydrogen bonds as illustrated for the covalent hydrides of elements of groups 14–17 in Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\). These result in much higher boiling points than are observed for substances in which dipole-dipole forces or London dispersion forces dominate. All the polar molecules (with predominantly dipole-dipole forces) in group 16 (H2S to H2Te) have lower boiling points than H2O (with hydrogen bonds). Methane and its heavier congeners in group 14 form a series whose boiling points increase smoothly with increasing molar mass. This is the expected trend in nonpolar molecules, for which London dispersion forces are the exclusive intermolecular forces. In contrast, the hydrides of the lightest members of groups 15–17 have boiling points that are more than 100°C greater than predicted on the basis of their molar masses. The effect is most dramatic for water: if we extend the straight line connecting the points for H2Te and H2Se to the line for period 2, we obtain an estimated boiling point of −130°C for water! Imagine the implications for life on Earth if water boiled at −130°C rather than 100°C.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\) The Effects of Hydrogen Bonding on Boiling Points. These plots of the boiling points of the covalent hydrides of the elements of groups 14–17 show that the boiling points of the lightest members of each series for which hydrogen bonding is possible (HF, NH3, and H2O) are anomalously high for compounds with such low molecular masses.

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Considering CH3OH, C2H6, Xe, and (CH3)3N, which can form hydrogen bonds with themselves? Draw the hydrogen-bonded structures.

    Given: compounds

    Asked for: formation of hydrogen bonds and structure


    1. Identify the compounds with a hydrogen atom attached to O, N, or F. These are likely to be able to act as hydrogen bond donors.
    2. Of the compounds that can act as hydrogen bond donors, identify those that also contain lone pairs of electrons, which allow them to be hydrogen bond acceptors. If a substance is both a hydrogen donor and a hydrogen bond acceptor, draw a structure showing the hydrogen bonding.


    A Of the species listed, xenon (Xe), ethane (C2H6), and trimethylamine [(CH3)3N] do not contain a hydrogen atom attached to O, N, or F; hence they cannot act as hydrogen bond donors.

    B The one compound that can act as a hydrogen bond donor, methanol (CH3OH), contains both a hydrogen atom attached to O (making it a hydrogen bond donor) and two lone pairs of electrons on O (making it a hydrogen bond acceptor); methanol can thus form hydrogen bonds by acting as either a hydrogen bond donor or a hydrogen bond acceptor. The hydrogen-bonded structure of methanol is as follows:

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Considering CH3CO2H, (CH3)3N, NH3, and CH3F, which can form hydrogen bonds with themselves? Draw the hydrogen-bonded structures.


    CH3CO2H and NH3;

    Although hydrogen bonds are significantly weaker than covalent bonds, with typical dissociation energies of only 15–25 kJ/mol, they have a significant influence on the physical properties of a compound. Compounds such as HF can form only two hydrogen bonds at a time as can, on average, pure liquid NH3. Consequently, even though their molecular masses are similar to that of water, their boiling points are significantly lower than the boiling point of water, which forms four hydrogen bonds at a time.

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\): Buckyballs

    Arrange C60 (buckminsterfullerene, which has a cage structure), NaCl, He, Ar, and N2O in order of increasing boiling points.

    Given: compounds

    Asked for: order of increasing boiling points


    Identify the intermolecular forces in each compound and then arrange the compounds according to the strength of those forces. The substance with the weakest forces will have the lowest boiling point.


    Electrostatic interactions are strongest for an ionic compound, so we expect NaCl to have the highest boiling point. To predict the relative boiling points of the other compounds, we must consider their polarity (for dipole–dipole interactions), their ability to form hydrogen bonds, and their molar mass (for London dispersion forces). Helium is nonpolar and by far the lightest, so it should have the lowest boiling point. Argon and N2O have very similar molar masses (40 and 44 g/mol, respectively), but N2O is polar while Ar is not. Consequently, N2O should have a higher boiling point. A C60 molecule is nonpolar, but its molar mass is 720 g/mol, much greater than that of Ar or N2O. Because the boiling points of nonpolar substances increase rapidly with molecular mass, C60 should boil at a higher temperature than the other nonionic substances. The predicted order is thus as follows, with actual boiling points in parentheses:

    He (−269°C) < Ar (−185.7°C) < N2O (−88.5°C) < C60 (>280°C) < NaCl (1465°C).

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Arrange 2,4-dimethylheptane, Ne, CS2, Cl2, and KBr in order of decreasing boiling points.


    KBr (1435°C) > 2,4-dimethylheptane (132.9°C) > CS2 (46.6°C) > Cl2 (−34.6°C) > Ne (−246°C)

    Example \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    Identify the most significant intermolecular force in each substance.

    1. C3H8
    2. CH3OH
    3. H2S


    a. Although C–H bonds are polar, they are only minimally polar. The most significant intermolecular force for this substance would be dispersion forces.

    b. This molecule has an H atom bonded to an O atom, so it will experience hydrogen bonding.

    c. Although this molecule does not experience hydrogen bonding, the Lewis electron dot diagram and VSEPR indicate that it is bent, so it has a permanent dipole. The most significant force in this substance is dipole-dipole interaction.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Identify the most significant intermolecular force in each substance.

    1. HF
    2. HCl
    Answer a

    hydrogen bonding

    Answer b

    dipole-dipole interactions


    • Molecules in liquids are held to other molecules by intermolecular interactions, which are weaker than the intramolecular interactions that hold the atoms together within molecules and polyatomic ions.
    • Dipole–dipole interactions arise from the electrostatic interactions of the positive and negative ends of molecules with permanent dipole moments.
    • London dispersion forces are due to the formation of instantaneous dipole moments in polar and nonpolar molecules as a result of short-lived fluctuations of electron charge distribution, which in turn cause the temporary formation of an induced dipole in adjacent molecules.
    • Hydrogen bonds are especially strong dipole–dipole interactions between molecules that have hydrogen bonded to a highly electronegative atom, such as O, N, or F. The resulting partially positively charged H atom on one molecule (the hydrogen bond donor) can interact strongly with a lone pair of electrons of a partially negatively charged O, N, or F atom on adjacent molecules (the hydrogen bond acceptor).

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