Reading: Covalent Bonds

Another way the octet rule can be satisfied is by the sharing of electrons between atoms to form covalent bonds. These bonds are stronger and much more common than ionic bonds in the molecules of living organisms. Covalent bonds are commonly found in carbon-based organic molecules, such as our DNA and proteins. Covalent bonds are also found in inorganic molecules like H2O, CO2, and O2. One, two, or three pairs of electrons may be shared, making single, double, and triple bonds, respectively. The more covalent bonds between two atoms, the stronger their connection. Thus, triple bonds are the strongest.

The strength of different levels of covalent bonding is one of the main reasons living organisms have a difficult time in acquiring nitrogen for use in constructing their molecules, even though molecular nitrogen, N2, is the most abundant gas in the atmosphere. Molecular nitrogen consists of two nitrogen atoms triple bonded to each other and, as with all molecules, the sharing of these three pairs of electrons between the two nitrogen atoms allows for the filling of their outer electron shells, making the molecule more stable than the individual nitrogen atoms. This strong triple bond makes it difficult for living systems to break apart this nitrogen in order to use it as constituents of proteins and DNA.

The formation of water molecules provides an example of covalent bonding. The hydrogen and oxygen atoms that combine to form water molecules are bound together by covalent bonds. The electron from the hydrogen splits its time between the incomplete outer shell of the hydrogen atoms and the incomplete outer shell of the oxygen atoms. To completely fill the outer shell of oxygen, which has six electrons in its outer shell but which would be more stable with eight, two electrons (one from each hydrogen atom) are needed: hence the well-known formula H2O. The electrons are shared between the two elements to fill the outer shell of each, making both elements more stable.

View this short video to see an animation of ionic and covalent bonding.

Polar Covalent Bonds

There are two types of covalent bonds: polar and nonpolar. In a polar covalent bond, shown in Figure 1, the electrons are unequally shared by the atoms and are attracted more to one nucleus than the other. Because of the unequal distribution of electrons between the atoms of different elements, a slightly positive (δ+) or slightly negative (δ–) charge develops. This partial charge is an important property of water and accounts for many of its characteristics.

Water is a polar molecule, with the hydrogen atoms acquiring a partial positive charge and the oxygen a partial negative charge. This occurs because the nucleus of the oxygen atom is more attractive to the electrons of the hydrogen atoms than the hydrogen nucleus is to the oxygen’s electrons. Thus oxygen has a higher electronegativity than hydrogen and the shared electrons spend more time in the vicinity of the oxygen nucleus than they do near the nucleus of the hydrogen atoms, giving the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen slightly negative and positive charges, respectively. Another way of stating this is that the probability of finding a shared electron near an oxygen nucleus is more likely than finding it near a hydrogen nucleus. Either way, the atom’s relative electronegativity contributes to the development of partial charges whenever one element is significantly more electronegative than the other, and the charges generated by these polar bonds may then be used for the formation of hydrogen bonds based on the attraction of opposite partial charges. (Hydrogen bonds, which are discussed in detail below, are weak bonds between slightly positively charged hydrogen atoms to slightly negatively charged atoms in other molecules.) Since macromolecules often have atoms within them that differ in electronegativity, polar bonds are often present in organic molecules.

Nonpolar Covalent Bonds

Nonpolar covalent bonds form between two atoms of the same element or between different elements that share electrons equally. For example, molecular oxygen (O2) is nonpolar because the electrons will be equally distributed between the two oxygen atoms.

Another example of a nonpolar covalent bond is methane (CH4), also shown in Figure 1. Carbon has four electrons in its outermost shell and needs four more to fill it. It gets these four from four hydrogen atoms, each atom providing one, making a stable outer shell of eight electrons. Carbon and hydrogen do not have the same electronegativity but are similar; thus, nonpolar bonds form. The hydrogen atoms each need one electron for their outermost shell, which is filled when it contains two electrons. These elements share the electrons equally among the carbons and the hydrogen atoms, creating a nonpolar covalent molecule.

Table compares water, methane and carbon dioxide molecules. In water, oxygen has a stronger pull on electrons than hydrogen resulting in a polar covalent O-H bond. Likewise in carbon dioxide the oxygen has a stronger pull on electrons than carbon and the bond is polar covalent. However, water has a bent shape because two lone pairs of electrons push the hydrogen atoms together so the molecule is polar. By contrast carbon dioxide has two double bonds that repel each other, resulting in a linear shape. The polar bonds in carbon dioxide cancel each other out, resulting in a nonpolar molecule. In methane, the bond between carbon and hydrogen is nonpolar and the molecule is a symmetrical tetrahedron with hydrogens spaced as far apart as possible on the three-dimensional sphere. Since methane is symmetrical with nonpolar bonds, it is a nonpolar molecule.

Figure 1. Whether a molecule is polar or nonpolar depends both on bond type and molecular shape. Both water and carbon dioxide have polar covalent bonds, but carbon dioxide is linear, so the partial charges on the molecule cancel each other out.

 

Watch this video for another explanation of covalent bonds and how they form: