Chemical Bonds

How elements interact with one another depends on how their electrons are arranged and how many openings for electrons exist at the outermost region where electrons are present in an atom. Electrons exist at energy levels that form shells around the nucleus. The closest shell can hold up to two electrons. The closest shell to the nucleus is always filled first, before any other shell can be filled. Hydrogen has one electron; therefore, it has only one spot occupied within the lowest shell. Helium has two electrons; therefore, it can completely fill the lowest shell with its two electrons. If you look at the periodic table, you will see that hydrogen and helium are the only two elements in the first row. This is because they only have electrons in their first shell. Hydrogen and helium are the only two elements that have the lowest shell and no other shells.

The second and third energy levels can hold up to eight electrons. The eight electrons are arranged in four pairs and one position in each pair is filled with an electron before any pairs are completed.

Looking at the periodic table again (Figure 1), you will notice that there are seven rows. These rows correspond to the number of shells that the elements within that row have. The elements within a particular row have increasing numbers of electrons as the columns proceed from left to right. Although each element has the same number of shells, not all of the shells are completely filled with electrons. If you look at the second row of the periodic table, you will find lithium (Li), beryllium (Be), boron (B), carbon (C), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), fluorine (F), and neon (Ne). These all have electrons that occupy only the first and second shells. Lithium has only one electron in its outermost shell, beryllium has two electrons, boron has three, and so on, until the entire shell is filled with eight electrons, as is the case with neon.

Not all elements have enough electrons to fill their outermost shells, but an atom is at its most stable when all of the electron positions in the outermost shell are filled. Because of these vacancies in the outermost shells, we see the formation of chemical bonds, or interactions between two or more of the same or different elements that result in the formation of molecules. To achieve greater stability, atoms will tend to completely fill their outer shells and will bond with other elements to accomplish this goal by sharing electrons, accepting electrons from another atom, or donating electrons to another atom. Because the outermost shells of the elements with low atomic numbers (up to calcium, with atomic number 20) can hold eight electrons, this is referred to as the octet rule. An element can donate, accept, or share electrons with other elements to fill its outer shell and satisfy the octet rule.

When an atom does not contain equal numbers of protons and electrons, it is called an ion. Because the number of electrons does not equal the number of protons, each ion has a net charge. Positive ions are formed by losing electrons and are called cations. Negative ions are formed by gaining electrons and are called anions.

For example, sodium only has one electron in its outermost shell. It takes less energy for sodium to donate that one electron than it does to accept seven more electrons to fill the outer shell. If sodium loses an electron, it now has 11 protons and only 10 electrons, leaving it with an overall charge of +1. It is now called a sodium ion.

The chlorine atom has seven electrons in its outer shell. Again, it is more energy-efficient for chlorine to gain one electron than to lose seven. Therefore, it tends to gain an electron to create an ion with 17 protons and 18 electrons, giving it a net negative (–1) charge. It is now called a chloride ion. This movement of electrons from one element to another is referred to as electron transfer. As Figure 1 illustrates, a sodium atom (Na) only has one electron in its outermost shell, whereas a chlorine atom (Cl) has seven electrons in its outermost shell. A sodium atom will donate its one electron to empty its shell, and a chlorine atom will accept that electron to fill its shell, becoming chloride. Both ions now satisfy the octet rule and have complete outermost shells. Because the number of electrons is no longer equal to the number of protons, each is now an ion and has a +1 (sodium) or –1 (chloride) charge.

Diagram shows electron transfer between elements.
Figure 1 Elements tend to fill their outermost shells with electrons. To do this, they can either donate or accept electrons from other elements.


Ionic Bonds

There are four types of bonds or interactions: ionic, covalent, hydrogen bonds, and van der Waals interactions. Ionic and covalent bonds are strong interactions that require a larger energy input to break apart. When an element donates an electron from its outer shell, as in the sodium atom example above, a positive ion is formed (Figure 2). The element accepting the electron is now negatively charged. Because positive and negative charges attract, these ions stay together and form an ionic bond, or a bond between ions. The elements bond together with the electron from one element staying predominantly with the other element. When Na+ and Cl ions combine to produce NaCl, an electron from a sodium atom stays with the other seven from the chlorine atom, and the sodium and chloride ions attract each other in a lattice of ions with a net zero charge.

Chlorine donates an electron to sodium.
Figure 2 In the formation of an ionic compound, metals lose electrons and nonmetals gain electrons to achieve an octet.

Covalent Bonds

Another type of strong chemical bond between two or more atoms is a covalent bond. These bonds form when an electron is shared between two elements and are the strongest and most common form of chemical bond in living organisms. Covalent bonds form between the elements that make up the biological molecules in our cells. Unlike ionic bonds, covalent bonds do not dissociate in water.

The hydrogen and oxygen atoms that combine to form water molecules are bound together by covalent bonds. The electron from the hydrogen atom divides its time between the outer shell of the hydrogen atom and the incomplete outer shell of the oxygen atom. To completely fill the outer shell of an oxygen atom, two electrons from two hydrogen atoms are needed, hence the subscript “2” in H2O. The electrons are shared between the atoms, dividing their time between them to “fill” the outer shell of each. This sharing is a lower energy state for all of the atoms involved than if they existed without their outer shells filled.

There are two types of covalent bonds: polar and nonpolar. Nonpolar covalent bonds form between two atoms of the same element or between different elements that share the electrons equally. For example, an oxygen atom can bond with another oxygen atom to fill their outer shells. This association is nonpolar because the electrons will be equally distributed between each oxygen atom. Two covalent bonds form between the two oxygen atoms because oxygen requires two shared electrons to fill its outermost shell. Nitrogen atoms will form three covalent bonds (also called triple covalent) between two atoms of nitrogen because each nitrogen atom needs three electrons to fill its outermost shell. Another example of a nonpolar covalent bond is found in the methane (CH4) molecule. The carbon atom 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. These elements all share the electrons equally, creating four nonpolar covalent bonds (Figure 3).

In a polar covalent bond, the electrons shared by the atoms spend more time closer to one nucleus than to the other nucleus. Because of the unequal distribution of electrons between the different nuclei, a slightly positive (δ+) or slightly negative (δ–) charge develops. The covalent bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water are polar covalent bonds. The shared electrons spend more time near the oxygen nucleus, giving it a small negative charge, than they spend near the hydrogen nuclei, giving these molecules a small positive charge.

Diagram depicting polar and nonpolar covalent bonds
Figure 3 The water molecule (left) depicts a polar bond with a slightly positive charge on the hydrogen atoms and a slightly negative charge on the oxygen. Examples of nonpolar bonds include methane (middle) and oxygen (right).

Hydrogen Bonds

Ionic and covalent bonds are strong bonds that require considerable energy to break. However, not all bonds between elements are ionic or covalent bonds. Weaker bonds can also form. These are attractions that occur between positive and negative charges that do not require much energy to break. Two weak bonds that occur frequently are hydrogen bonds and van der Waals interactions. These bonds give rise to the unique properties of water and the unique structures of DNA and proteins.

When polar covalent bonds containing a hydrogen atom form, the hydrogen atom in that bond has a slightly positive charge. This is because the shared electron is pulled more strongly toward the other element and away from the hydrogen nucleus. Because the hydrogen atom is slightly positive (δ+), it will be attracted to neighboring negative partial charges (δ–). When this happens, a weak interaction occurs between the δ+ charge of the hydrogen atom of one molecule and the δ– charge of the other molecule. This interaction is called a hydrogen bond. This type of bond is common; for example, the liquid nature of water is caused by the hydrogen bonds between water molecules (Figure 4). Hydrogen bonds give water the unique properties that sustain life. If it were not for hydrogen bonding, water would be a gas rather than a liquid at room temperature.

Diagram showing hydrogen bonds formed between adjacent water molecules.
Figure 4 Hydrogen bonds form between slightly positive (δ+) and slightly negative (δ–) charges of polar covalent molecules, such as water.

Hydrogen bonds can form between different molecules and they do not always have to include a water molecule. Hydrogen atoms in polar bonds within any molecule can form bonds with other adjacent molecules. For example, hydrogen bonds hold together two long strands of DNA to give the DNA molecule its characteristic double-stranded structure. Hydrogen bonds are also responsible for some of the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

van der Waals Interactions

Like hydrogen bonds, van der Waals interactions are weak attractions or interactions between molecules. They occur between polar, covalently bound, atoms in different molecules. Some of these weak attractions are caused by temporary partial charges formed when electrons move around a nucleus. These weak interactions between molecules are important in biological systems.


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OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. March 22, 2017


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Principles of Biology by Lisa Bartee, Walter Shriner, and Catherine Creech is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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