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10.4: Geometry and Molecular Polarity

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  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Explain the concepts of polar covalent bonds and molecular polarity
    • Assess the polarity of a molecule based on its bonding and structure

    As discussed previously, polar covalent bonds connect two atoms with differing electronegativities, leaving one atom with a partial positive charge (δ+) and the other atom with a partial negative charge (δ–), as the electrons are pulled toward the more electronegative atom. This separation of charge gives rise to a bond dipole moment.

    This bond moment can be represented as a vector, a quantity having both direction and magnitude (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Dipole vectors are shown as arrows pointing along the bond from the less electronegative atom toward the more electronegative atom. A small plus sign is drawn on the less electronegative end to indicate the partially positive end of the bond. The length of the arrow is proportional to the magnitude of the electronegativity difference between the two atoms.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): (a) There is a small difference in electronegativity between C and H, represented as a short vector. (b) The electronegativity difference between B and F is much larger, so the vector representing the dipole moment is much longer.

    Molecular Polarity and Dipole Moment

    Not only bonds can have dipole moments, however. A whole molecule may also have a separation of charge, depending on its molecular structure and the polarity of each of its bonds. If such a charge separation exists, the molecule is said to be a polar molecule (or dipole); otherwise the molecule is said to be nonpolar. The dipole moment measures the extent of net charge separation in the molecule as a whole. We determine the dipole moment by adding the bond moments in three-dimensional space, taking into account the molecular structure.

    For diatomic molecules, there is only one bond, so its bond dipole moment determines the molecular polarity. Homonuclear diatomic molecules such as Br2 and N2 have no difference in electronegativity, so their dipole moment is zero. For heteronuclear molecules such as CO, there is a small dipole moment. For HF, there is a larger dipole moment because there is a larger difference in electronegativity.

    In more complex molecules with polar covalent bonds, the three-dimensional geometry and the compound’s symmetry determine whether there is a net dipole moment. The dipole moment of a molecule is the vector sum of the dipole moments of the individual bonds in the molecule. If the individual bond dipole moments cancel one another, there is no net dipole moment. Such is the case for CO2, a linear molecule (Figure \(\PageIndex{2a}\)). Each C–O bond in CO2 is polar, yet experiments show that the CO2 molecule has no dipole moment. Because the two C–O bond dipoles in CO2 are equal in magnitude and oriented at 180° to each other, they cancel. As a result, the CO2 molecule has no net dipole moment even though it has a substantial separation of charge. In contrast, the H2O molecule is not linear (Figure \(\PageIndex{2b}\)); it is bent in three-dimensional space, so the dipole moments do not cancel each other. Thus a molecule such as H2O has a net dipole moment. We expect the concentration of negative charge to be on the oxygen, the more electronegative atom, and positive charge on the two hydrogens. This charge polarization allows H2O to hydrogen-bond to other polarized or charged species, including other water molecules.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): How Individual Bond Dipole Moments Are Added Together to Give an Overall Molecular Dipole Moment for Two Triatomic Molecules with Different Structures. (a) In CO2, the C–O bond dipoles are equal in magnitude but oriented in opposite directions (at 180°). Their vector sum is zero, so CO2 therefore has no net dipole. (b) In H2O, the O–H bond dipoles are also equal in magnitude, but they are oriented at 104.5° to each other. Hence the vector sum is not zero, and H2O has a net dipole moment.

    The OCS molecule has a structure similar to CO2, but a sulfur atom has replaced one of the oxygen atoms. To determine if this molecule is polar, we draw the molecular structure. VSEPR theory predicts a linear molecule:

    The C–O bond is considerably polar. Although C and S have very similar electronegativity values, S is slightly more electronegative than C, and so the C-S bond is just slightly polar. Because oxygen is more electronegative than sulfur, the oxygen end of the molecule is the negative end.

    Chloromethane, CH3Cl, is another example of a polar molecule. Although the polar C–Cl and C–H bonds are arranged in a tetrahedral geometry, the C–Cl bonds have a larger bond moment than the C–H bond, and the bond moments do not completely cancel each other. All of the dipoles have a upward component in the orientation shown, since carbon is more electronegative than hydrogen and less electronegative than chlorine:

    Other examples of molecules with polar bonds are shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). In molecular geometries that are highly symmetrical (most notably tetrahedral and square planar, trigonal bipyramidal, and octahedral), individual bond dipole moments completely cancel, and there is no net dipole moment. Although a molecule like CHCl3 is best described as tetrahedral, the atoms bonded to carbon are not identical. Consequently, the bond dipole moments cannot cancel one another, and the molecule has a dipole moment. Due to the arrangement of the bonds in molecules that have V-shaped, trigonal pyramidal, seesaw, T-shaped, and square pyramidal geometries, the bond dipole moments cannot cancel one another. Consequently, molecules with these geometries always have a nonzero dipole moment.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Molecules with Polar Bonds. Individual bond dipole moments are indicated in red. Due to their different three-dimensional structures, some molecules with polar bonds have a net dipole moment (HCl, CH2O, NH3, and CHCl3), indicated in blue, whereas others do not because the bond dipole moments cancel (BCl3, CCl4, PF5, and SF6).

    To summarize, to be polar, a molecule must:

    1. Contain at least one polar covalent bond.
    2. Have a molecular structure such that the sum of the vectors of each bond dipole moment does not cancel.

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which molecule(s) has a net dipole moment?

    1. H2S
    2. NHF2
    3. BF3

    Given: three chemical compounds

    Asked for: net dipole moment


    For each three-dimensional molecular geometry, predict whether the bond dipoles cancel. If they do not, then the molecule has a net dipole moment.


    1. The total number of electrons around the central atom, S, is eight, which gives four electron pairs. Two of these electron pairs are bonding pairs and two are lone pairs, so the molecular geometry of H2S is bent (Figure 9.2.6). The bond dipoles cannot cancel one another, so the molecule has a net dipole moment.

    2. Difluoroamine has a trigonal pyramidal molecular geometry. Because there is one hydrogen and two fluorines, and because of the lone pair of electrons on nitrogen, the molecule is not symmetrical, and the bond dipoles of NHF2 cannot cancel one another. This means that NHF2 has a net dipole moment. We expect polarization from the two fluorine atoms, the most electronegative atoms in the periodic table, to have a greater affect on the net dipole moment than polarization from the lone pair of electrons on nitrogen.

    3. The molecular geometry of BF3 is trigonal planar. Because all the B–F bonds are equal and the molecule is highly symmetrical, the dipoles cancel one another in three-dimensional space. Thus BF3 has a net dipole moment of zero:

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which molecule(s) has a net dipole moment?

    • CH3Cl
    • SO3
    • XeO3

    CH3Cl; and XeO3

    Properties of Polar Molecules

    Polar molecules tend to align when placed in an electric field with the positive end of the molecule oriented toward the negative plate and the negative end toward the positive plate (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). We can use an electrically charged object to attract polar molecules, but nonpolar molecules are not attracted.

    Molecular polarity is an important factor in how molecules of one type interact with other molecules. For example, polar solvents are better at dissolving polar substances, and nonpolar solvents are better at dissolving nonpolar substances. Polarity also influences the way that molecules arrange themselves in the solid and liquid states. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) Molecules are always randomly distributed in the liquid state in the absence of an electric field. (b) When an electric field is applied, polar molecules like HF will align to the dipoles with the field direction.

    Example \(\PageIndex{7}\): Polarity Simulations

    Open the molecule polarity simulation and select the “Three Atoms” tab at the top. This should display a molecule ABC with three electronegativity adjustors. You can display or hide the bond moments, molecular dipoles, and partial charges at the right. Turning on the Electric Field will show whether the molecule moves when exposed to a field, similar to Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\).

    Use the electronegativity controls to determine how the molecular dipole will look for the starting bent molecule if:

    1. A and C are very electronegative and B is in the middle of the range.
    2. A is very electronegative, and B and C are not.


    1. Molecular dipole moment points immediately between A and C.
    2. Molecular dipole moment points along the A–B bond, toward A.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{7}\)

    Determine the partial charges that will give the largest possible bond dipoles.


    The largest bond moments will occur with the largest partial charges. The two solutions above represent how unevenly the electrons are shared in the bond. The bond moments will be maximized when the electronegativity difference is greatest. The controls for A and C should be set to one extreme, and B should be set to the opposite extreme. Although the magnitude of the bond moment will not change based on whether B is the most electronegative or the least, the direction of the bond moment will.


    A dipole moment measures a separation of charge. For one bond, the bond dipole moment is determined by the difference in electronegativity between the two atoms. For a molecule, the overall dipole moment is determined by both the individual bond moments and how these dipoles are arranged in the molecular structure. For some highly symmetrical structures, the individual bond dipole moments cancel one another, giving a dipole moment of zero. Polar molecules (those with an appreciable dipole moment) interact with electric fields, whereas nonpolar molecules do not.


    Paul Flowers (University of North Carolina - Pembroke), Klaus Theopold (University of Delaware) and Richard Langley (Stephen F. Austin State University) with contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at