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4.4: Covalent Bonding and Orbital Overlap

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  • Let’s examine the bonds in BeH2, for example. According to the VSEPR model, BeH2 is a linear compound with four valence electrons and two Be–H bonds. Its bonding can also be described using an atomic orbital approach. Beryllium has a 1s22s2 electron configuration, and each H atom has a 1s1 electron configuration. Because the Be atom has a filled 2s subshell, however, it has no singly occupied orbitals available to overlap with the singly occupied 1s orbitals on the H atoms. If a singly occupied 1s orbital on hydrogen were to overlap with a filled 2s orbital on beryllium, the resulting bonding orbital would contain three electrons, but the maximum allowed by quantum mechanics is two. How then is beryllium able to bond to two hydrogen atoms? One way would be to add enough energy to excite one of its 2s electrons into an empty 2p orbital and reverse its spin, in a process called promotion:

    In this excited state, the Be atom would have two singly occupied atomic orbitals (the 2s and one of the 2p orbitals), each of which could overlap with a singly occupied 1s orbital of an H atom to form an electron-pair bond. Although this would produce BeH2, the two Be–H bonds would not be equivalent: the 1s orbital of one hydrogen atom would overlap with a Be 2s orbital, and the 1s orbital of the other hydrogen atom would overlap with an orbital of a different energy, a Be 2p orbital. Experimental evidence indicates, however, that the two Be–H bonds have identical energies. To resolve this discrepancy and explain how molecules such as BeH2 form, scientists developed the concept of hybridization.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Organic Chemistry With a Biological Emphasis by Tim Soderberg (University of Minnesota, Morris)

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