Structure and Bonding in Chemistry

Covalent Bonds

In the previous page, we saw how atoms could achieve a complete shell of electrons by losing or gaining one or more electrons, to form ions. There is another way atoms can satisfy the octet rule: they can share electrons. For example, two hydrogen atoms can share their electrons, as shown below. Because each of the shared electrons then "belongs" to both atoms, both atoms then a fulled shell, with two electrons. The pair of shared electrons is symbolised by the heavy line between the atoms.

In terms of charge-charge interactions, what happens is that the shared electrons are located between the two bonded atoms. The force attracting them to both nuclei is stronger than the repulsive force between nuclei.

The methane (CH4) molecule illustrates a more complex example. Each of the 4 electrons in the outermost ("valence") shell of carbon is shared with one hydrogen. In turn, each of the hydrogens also shares one electron with carbon. Overall, carbon "owns" 10 electrons - satisfying the octet rule - and each hydrogen has 2. This is shown here:

When a molecule of methane is studied experimentally, it is found that the four hydrogens spread out evenly around the carbon atom, leading to the three-dimensional structure shown here:

As you would expect given that the electrons are shared, if we plot the region where the electrons sit, this is not localised on one atom, as it was for the ionic compounds, but is all over the molecule:

Covalent Bonding and Isomers

As we have seen above, atoms can share electrons with others to form chemical bonds. This can also take place between two carbon atoms, to form a molecule such as ethane (C2H6):

When we add two more carbon atoms and 4 more hydrogens, to make butane (C4H10), an interesting situation arises: There are two different ways of bonding the carbons together, to form two different molecules, or isomers!!! These are shown below. For one of the isomers, the first carbon is bonded to three hydrogens, and to the second carbon, which is itself bonded to another two hydrogens and to the third carbon, which is itself bonded to the fourth carbon. In the other isomer, one of the carbons forms a bond to all three carbon atoms:

Larger compounds can also be formed, and they will have even more isomers! For example, this compound with 8 carbons is called isooctane, and is one of the main components of petrol for cars:

Can you check that the formula for this compound is C8H18? Can you sketch another compound with the same formula?

Because covalent bonds can be formed in many different ways, it is possible to write down, and to make, many different molecules. Many of these are natural compounds, made by living animals or plants within their cells. This example shows one such molecule, cholesterol (C27H46O), which can contribute to heart disease in people whose diet is too rich in fats:

Note that in this structure, two neighbouring carbon atoms appear to form only three bonds, which would go against the octet rule. In fact, these atoms bond by sharing two electrons each (a total of four electrons). In this way, they complete their electron shell like the others. This situation is referred to as a double bond, and is shown in the pop-up window as a thicker stick between those two atoms (Can you find this bond? Check that all other carbon atoms do form four bonds).

Other compounds are synthetic, they are made by chemists. Chemists can also make the natural compounds, starting from only simple things like methane and water. The "natural" molecules made in this way are identical to the "real" natural compounds! Other synthetic molecules do not exist in nature. They can have desirable properties, for example, many medicines are made in this way. An example of a "small" medicine molecule is aspirin, C9H8O4, shown below. In this molecule, two bonds between carbon and oxygen are double bonds, and are shown as thicker sticks in the model.

Properties of Covalent Molecules

The covalent bonds between atoms in a given molecule are very strong, as strong as ionic bonds. However, unlike ionic bonds, there is a limit to the number of covalent bonds to other atoms that a given atom can form. For example, carbon can make four bonds - not more. Oxygen can form two bonds. As a result, once each atom has made all the bonds it can make, as in all the molecules shown above, the atoms can no longer interact with other ones. For this reason, two covalent molecules barely stick together. Light molecules are therefore gases, such as methane or ethane, above, hydrogen, H2, nitrogen, N2 (the main component of the air we breathe, etc. Heavier molecules, such as e.g. the isooctane molecule, are liquids at room temperature, and others still, such as cholesterol, are solids.

Covalent Solids

As well as the solids just referred to, formed by piling lots of covalent molecules together, and relying on their slight "stickiness" to hold the solid together, one can also form solids entirely bound together by covalent bonds. An excellent example is diamond, which is pure carbon, with each carbon atom bonding to four others, to form a huge "molecule" containing many millions of millions of atoms. This shows a part of a diamond molecule:

In diamond, all the carbon atoms share one electron with each of their four neighbouring carbon atoms. There is another form in which pure carbon can be formed: graphite. This is the main component of the "lead" in pencils. Here, instead of each carbon having four neighbours, it only has three. Each carbon shares one electron with two of its neighbours, and 2 electrons with the third neighbour. In this way, one C-C bond out of three is a double bond. The atoms all bond together in planes, and the planes stack on top of each other as shown:

In graphite, the C-C bonds in the planes are very strong, but the force between the different planes is quite weak, and they can slip over one another. This explains the "soft" feel of graphite, and the fact that it is used as a lubricant, for example in motor oil.

Other "Big" Covalent Molecules

In solids like diamond and graphite, the different atoms all bond to one another to form one very large molecule. The atoms are bonded to each other in all directions in diamond, and in two directions (within the planes) in graphite, with no bonding in the other direction. Some important covalent molecules involve atoms bonding to each other repeatedly along just one direction, with no bonds in the others. These are called polymers, and one simple example if polyethene (also called polythene, or polyethylene). The structure of polythene is shown here (the dangling bonds at each end indicate how the bonding should really continue for thousands of atoms on each side):

Polythene is what most plastic bags are made of. Other polymers include molecules such as nylon, teflon (these, like polythene, are man-made), or cellulose (the stuff that makes wood hard), a biological polymer.

Covalent Bonds - Conclusions

Covalent bonds involve sharing electrons between atoms. The shared electrons "belong" to both atoms in the bond. Each atom forms the right number of bonds, such that they have filled shells. There is lots of flexibility in terms of which atom bonds to which other ones. This means that many isomeric molecules can be formed, and Nature as well as chemists are skilled at designing and making new molecules with desirable properties. In most cases, only a small number of atoms are bonded together to make a molecule, and there is no bonding between atoms in one molecule and other atoms in other molecules. This means that molecules are only very slightly "sticky" between themselves, and covalent compounds are either gases, or liquids, or sometimes solids. In some cases, bonding occurs to form large molecules with thousands or millions of atoms, and these can be solids.

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This page and all its contents belong to and were written by Jeremy Harvey