Covalent Compounds

Covalent compounds are a type of chemical compound where atoms share electrons to stick together. Imagine two friends holding hands to stay connected; similarly, atoms in covalent compounds share their electrons to form a strong bond. This sharing allows them to fill up their outer electron shells, making them more stable and happy, just like how sharing and cooperation make us feel complete and content. These compounds are found all around us, in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and even in the DNA that makes us who we are.

What Are Covalent Compounds

Covalent compounds are formed when non-metal atoms share electrons to achieve a full outer electron shell, leading to stability. Unlike ionic compounds, which involve electron transfer, covalent compounds rely on electron sharing. This bonding results in molecules that can be gases, liquids, or solids at room temperature, such as oxygen gas (O₂), water (H₂O), and sugar (C₁₂H₂₂O₁₁), respectively. Generally, they have lower melting and boiling points, do not conduct electricity well, and vary in their water solubility.

Covalent Compound Structure

Covalent compounds are characterized by the sharing of electron pairs between nonmetal atoms, forming what is known as covalent bonds. These bonds can range from single, involving one pair of shared electrons, to triple bonds, where three pairs of electrons are shared. This sharing of electrons allows atoms to achieve a more stable electron configuration. The structure of a covalent compound is not just limited to how atoms bond but also includes the arrangement of these atoms in space, which can significantly influence the compound’s physical and chemical properties.

The spatial arrangement of atoms within covalent compounds, or molecular geometry, is determined by the Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion (VSEPR) theory, which states that electron pairs around a central atom will position themselves as far apart as possible to minimize repulsion. This leads to well-defined geometrical shapes, such as linear, trigonal planar, and tetrahedral, among others. Additionally, some covalent compounds form extensive networks or macromolecules, such as diamonds or silicon dioxide, where atoms are bonded in a continuous structure, contributing to their high melting points and remarkable strength.

Covalent Character Formula

Covalent character in a bond reflects how much it resembles a covalent bond, where atoms share electron pairs instead of transferring electrons. This sharing typically occurs between non-metal atoms with similar electronegativities. Electronegativity, measuring an atom’s electron-attracting ability, helps gauge covalent character: closer electronegativity values indicate more covalent bonds, while larger differences suggest more ionic character. Pauling’s scale estimates this, with differences under 1.7 signaling covalent bonds. Most bonds exhibit a mix of ionic and covalent traits, falling between the extremes.

Covalent Compound Examples

Examples of Covalent Compounds

1. Water (H2O) – Essential for Life

  • Equation: 2H₂ + O₂ → 2H₂O
  • This equation represents the combination of hydrogen and oxygen gases to form water, crucial for all forms of life and used in drinking, cooking, and cleaning.

2. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – A Greenhouse Gas

  • Equation: C + O₂ → CO₂
  • This shows carbon reacting with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect and is used in carbonated beverages and plant photosynthesis.

3. Methane (CH4) – Natural Gas

  • Equation: 4H₂ + C → CH₄
  • This illustrates the formation of methane from carbon and hydrogen, a major energy source used for heating, cooking, and electricity generation.

4. Glucose (C6H12O6) – A Simple Sugar

  • Equation: 6CO₂ + 6H₂O → C₆H₁₂O₆ + 6O₂
  • This depicts photosynthesis, where carbon dioxide and water make glucose, fueling cellular activities in living organisms and used in food and beverages for energy.

5. Ozone (O3) – Protects Earth from UV Rays

  • Equation: 3O₂ → 2O₃
  • This conversion of oxygen molecules into ozone shields the Earth from harmful UV radiation, crucial for life’s protection on the surface.

6. Sulfuric Acid (H2SO4) – Industrial Acid

  • Equation: SO₃ + H₂O → H₂SO₄
  • This shows sulfur trioxide reacting with water to form sulfuric acid, used in manufacturing fertilizers, chemicals, and in petroleum refining.

7. Ammonia (NH3) – Used in Fertilizers

  • Equation: N₂ + 3H₂ → 2NH₃
  • This illustrates synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, key in producing fertilizers that support global agriculture.

7. Ethanol (C2H5OH) – Alcohol in Beverages

  • Equation: C₂H₄ + H₂O → C₂H₅OH
  • This hydration of ethylene produces ethanol, used in alcoholic beverages and as a biofuel and solvent.

8. Acetic Acid (CH3COOH) – Vinegar

  • Equation: C₂H₄O + O₂ → CH₃COOH
  • This oxidation of acetaldehyde to acetic acid creates vinegar, used in cooking, as a preservative, and in cleaning products.

9. Silicon Dioxide (SiO2) – Found in Quartz

  • Equation: Si + O₂ → SiO₂
  • This reaction of silicon with oxygen forms silicon dioxide, a component of quartz used in glass making, construction materials, and electronics.

How to Name Covalent Compounds

Naming covalent compounds involves a systematic approach that ensures clear communication about which molecules are being referred to. These steps guide you through the process of naming covalent compounds according to the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) guidelines. Covalent compounds, formed by the sharing of electron pairs between atoms, are primarily composed of non-metal elements.

Step 1: Identify the Elements Present

Start by identifying the two or more non-metal elements that make up the covalent compound. Note the order they appear in the chemical formula, which is usually from left to right on the periodic table.

Step 2: Determine the Prefixes for Each Element

Use prefixes to indicate the number of atoms of each element present in the compound. The prefixes are as follows:

  1. mono- (often omitted for the first element)
  2. di-
  3. tri-
  4. tetra-
  5. penta-
  6. hexa-
  7. hepta-
  8. octa-
  9. nona-
  10. deca-

Step 3: Write the Name of the First Element

Write down the name of the first element. If there is only one atom of the first element, you typically do not use the prefix “mono-“. For example, CO is carbon monoxide, not monocarbon monoxide.

Step 4: Write the Name of the Second Element with a Prefix

For the second element, always use a prefix indicating the number of atoms. Change the ending of the second element to “-ide.” For instance, in CO₂, carbon is followed by “di” for two oxygen atoms, making it carbon dioxide.

Step 5: Combine the Elements with Prefixes

Combine the names and prefixes of the elements in the order they appear in the formula. Ensure that the name flows smoothly, occasionally dropping vowels from prefixes (especially “o”) to avoid awkward pronunciation.

Step 6: Check for Common Names

Some covalent compounds have common names that differ from their systematic names. It’s essential to be familiar with these as they are often used in literature and discussions. For example, H₂O is more commonly known as water, not dihydrogen monoxide.

Covalent Compound Properties

Physical Properties

Property Description
State at Room Temperature Can exist as solids, liquids, or gases, depending on the compound.
Melting and Boiling Points Generally have lower melting and boiling points compared to ionic compounds.
Solubility in Water Solubility varies; some covalent compounds are soluble in water, while others are not.
Conductivity Do not conduct electricity in the solid state but may conduct when melted or dissolved in water if they ionize.
Density Tend to have lower densities compared to ionic compounds.
Hardness Usually softer than ionic compounds, with some being very soft and others hard but brittle.
  • State at Room Temperature: Covalent compounds can be gases (e.g., CO₂, NH₃), liquids (e.g., H₂O, C₂H₅OH), or solids (e.g., sugar, wax) at room temperature. This variance is due to the strength of the covalent bonds and the molecular forces between the molecules.
  • Melting and Boiling Points: The melting and boiling points of covalent compounds are generally lower than those of ionic compounds. This is because the forces holding the molecules together in a covalent compound (van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding) are typically weaker than the ionic bonds in ionic compounds.
  • Solubility in Water: Water solubility of covalent compounds depends on their ability to form hydrogen bonds with water molecules. Compounds like glucose dissolve well in water due to their ability to form hydrogen bonds, while others like oils and fats do not dissolve due to their non-polar nature.
  • Conductivity: In their solid state, covalent compounds do not conduct electricity because they do not have free-moving ions. Some covalent compounds can conduct electricity when dissolved in water or melted if they ionize.
  • Density: Covalent compounds often have lower densities compared to ionic compounds. This is because the atoms in covalent compounds are usually less closely packed together than in ionic compounds.
  • Hardness: The hardness of covalent compounds varies widely. Some, like diamond (a form of carbon), are extremely hard, while others, like wax, are soft. The hardness depends on the type of covalent bonds present and the structure of the compound.

Characteristics of Covalent Compounds

Low Melting and Boiling Points

Covalent compounds typically have relatively low melting and boiling points compared to ionic compounds. This is because the forces holding the molecules together in a covalent compound (Van der Waals forces or hydrogen bonds) are generally weaker than the ionic bonds in ionic compounds.

Non-Conductive in Solid State

In their solid state, covalent compounds do not conduct electricity. This lack of conductivity is due to the absence of free ions or electrons that can move and carry an electric charge.

Solubility in Organic Solvents

Many covalent compounds are soluble in organic solvents but not in water. This is attributed to the “like dissolves like” principle, where compounds with similar types of bonds and polarities tend to be soluble in each other.

Directional Bonds

Covalent bonding is directional, meaning that atoms share electrons in a specific orientation relative to each other. This leads to the formation of molecules with definite shapes.

Physical State at Room Temperature

Covalent compounds can exist in all three physical states (solid, liquid, and gas) at room temperature, depending on the strength of their intermolecular forces.

Variable Reactivity

The reactivity of covalent compounds varies widely, depending on the elements involved and the strength of the bond. Some covalent compounds are highly reactive, while others are very stable.

Formation of Molecules

Covalent compounds form discrete molecules, which are collections of atoms bonded together. This contrasts with ionic compounds, which form large crystal lattice structures.

Difference between Ionic Compounds and Covalent Compounds

Characteristic Ionic Compounds Covalent Compounds
Type of Bond Formed by the transfer of electrons from one atom to another. Formed by the sharing of electrons between atoms.
Bond Strength Generally have stronger bonds due to the electrostatic force between ions. Have weaker bonds compared to ionic compounds because the forces (Van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonds) are not as strong as ionic bonds.
Melting and Boiling Points High melting and boiling points due to strong ionic bonds. Low melting and boiling points due to weaker forces holding the molecules together.
Electrical Conductivity Conduct electricity in molten or dissolved state due to the presence of free ions. Do not conduct electricity in solid state because there are no free ions or electrons.
Solubility Soluble in polar solvents like water due to the polar nature of the ionic bonds. Soluble in non-polar solvents like organic solvents due to the non-polar or slightly polar nature of the covalent bonds.
Physical State at Room Temperature Usually solid due to strong ionic bonds. Can be gases, liquids, or solids, depending on the strength of the intermolecular forces.
Examples Sodium chloride (NaCl), Potassium bromide (KBr) Water (H2O), Carbon dioxide (CO2)


How Do You Identify a Covalent Compound?

Identifying a covalent compound involves examining its composition, bonding, and properties. Here are key factors:

  • Elements Involved: Covalent bonds form between two non-metals, such as oxygen and hydrogen in water (H₂O).
  • Electronegativity: There’s a small difference in electronegativity between the bonded atoms, allowing for equal or near-equal electron sharing.
  • Physical State: Covalent compounds can be solids, liquids, or gases at room temperature.
  • Solubility: Polar covalent compounds are water-soluble, while nonpolar ones prefer nonpolar solvents.
  • Conductivity: Covalent compounds don’t conduct electricity in their pure state, lacking free ions or electrons.

Is Ionic Stronger Than Covalent?

The strength of ionic vs. covalent bonds varies by context. Ionic bonds are strong due to high lattice energy, contributing to high melting and boiling points. Covalent bonds, though individually might seem weaker, derive strength from electron sharing, the number of shared electrons, and molecular structure, making them crucial in biological and organic compounds. Therefore, “strength” is context-dependent, focusing on different aspects of chemical behavior.

Why Is It Called a Covalent Bond?

“Covalent bond” comes from “co-” meaning “together” and “valentia” meaning “strength”, referring to atoms sharing electrons to achieve stability. Introduced by G.N. Lewis in 1916, the concept explained molecule formation through electron sharing, allowing atoms to attain a stable electron arrangement. This principle is fundamental in chemistry, underlying the structure and function of various substances, from simple molecules like water to complex macromolecules like DNA and proteins.

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