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2.10: Covalent Bonds
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2.10: Covalent Bonds

Overview

When two atoms share electrons to complete their valence shells they create a covalent bond. An atom’s electronegativity—the force with which shared electrons are pulled towards an atom—determines how the electrons are shared. Molecules formed with covalent bonds can be either polar or nonpolar. Atoms with similar electronegativities form nonpolar covalent bonds; the electrons are shared equally. Atoms with different electronegativities share electrons unequally, creating polar bonds.

A Covalent Bond Is Formed by Two Shared Electrons

The number of covalent bonds that an atom can form is dictated by how many valence electrons it has. Oxygen, for example, has six out of eight possible valence electrons, meaning that each oxygen atom needs two more electrons to become stable. Oxygen can form single bonds with two other atoms, as it does when it forms water with two hydrogen atoms (chemical formula H2O). Oxygen can also form a double bond with just one other atom that also needs two more electrons to complete its octet (e.g., another oxygen atom). Carbon has four valence electrons and therefore can form four covalent bonds, as it does in methane (CH4).

When a covalent bond is made, both atoms share a pair of electrons in a hybrid orbital that differs in shape from a normal orbital. The electrons participating in the bond thus orbit in a modified path around the nuclei of both atoms. Covalent bonds are strong and, once formed, cannot be broken by physical forces.

Electronegativity Determines Whether a Molecule Is Polar or Nonpolar

Electronegativity is the tendency of an atom to attract electrons in a bond. The most electronegative atom is fluorine. Starting with fluorine at the top right corner of the periodic table (omitting the noble gases in the rightmost column), the electronegativity of atoms tends to decrease with diagonal leftward movement down the periodic table, such that atoms with the lowest electronegativities are at the bottom left corner (e.g., francium, or Fr). If atoms have extremely different electronegativities, they will likely form ions instead of covalent bonds. However, for atoms that form covalent bonds with one another, their electronegativity values determine whether the bond will be polar or nonpolar.

A nonpolar bond is one in which the electrons are shared equally, and there is no charge across the molecule. A polar bond, by contrast, occurs when one atom is more electronegative than another and pulls the electrons toward it. Polar bonds have a partial negative charge on one side and a partial positive charge on the other, which is important because it causes polar molecules to behave differently than nonpolar ones.

Polar molecules are hydrophilic because their partial charges attract them to other charged molecules, which also means they are soluble in water. Nonpolar molecules—those containing long stretches of hydrocarbons, such as fats—are said to be hydrophobic. Unlike polar molecules, nonpolar molecules will not dissolve in water. Cells are often surrounded by fluid and have cytoplasms that contain water. Thus, the way a molecule interacts with water and other charged molecules impact how it is transported and used by cells.

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