covalent bonding

Covalent bonding

Covalent bonding as you learned in your gcse chemistry lessons involves the sharing of a pair of electrons. The two atoms involved in forming a covalent bond are held together by the electrostatic attraction of the positively charged nuclei and the negative charges on the shared pair of electrons. Covalent bonding usually but not always occurs between non-metal elements.

A covalent bond involves the sharing of a pair of electrons.  There is electrostatic attraction between the nuclei and the shared electrons.

Reactive non-metals are mostly found in groups 5, 6 and 7 of the periodic table so this means that their outer electron shells are almost full; so when these react they will gain electrons and this will results in them having full outer electron shells or a noble gas p6 electron configuration in their outer electron sub-shell.

Most covalent substances consist of small molecules (a molecule is simply a small group of atoms). Covalent substances are often described as having a molecular structure. Ammonia is a covalent substance you first met in gcse chemistry; it is a small molecule made up of only 4 atoms; one atom of nitrogen and 3 atoms of hydrogen. Its chemical formula is NH3. It is a covalent compound since it contains only non-metals.


3d model of an ammonia molecule showing the lone pair of electrons. Ammonia is a small covalent molecule; the ammonia molecule has 3N-H covalent bonds and a lone pair or non-bonding pair of electrons. The image opposite shows an ammonia molecule with its lone pair of electrons.

Below is a dot and cross diagram to show how each of the covalent bonds in an ammonia molecule are formed. The nitrogen atom has an electron arrangement of 2,5 or 1s22s22p3 and is shown below. Its outer shell electrons are shown as green dots; recall from gcse chemistry that in dot and cross diagrams we only show the outer shell or valency electrons since these are the ones involved in bonding. Hydrogen is also shown with its one outer shell electron; shown as a black cross (X).

In order to achieve full last shells both these non-metal atoms share electrons. The electrons are shared in pairs. A pair of shared electrons results in a covalent bond being formed between the two atoms. The nitrogen atom forms 3 covalent bonds or shares 3 pairs of electrons with the hydrogen atoms. By sharing electrons both the nitrogen atom and the hydrogen atoms will end up with a noble gas electron configuration. Hydrogen only needs to gain 1 electron to fill its outer electron shell so each hydrogen atom will only form 1 covalent bond.

A dot and cross diagram for an ammonia molecule

Methane- dot and cross diagram

A 3d model of a methane molecule

Methane is the gas we use to heat our homes and for cooking with; it is also the gas used in Bunsen burners in the science lab. Its chemical formula is CH4 and it is a covalent compound consisting of 1 atom of carbon and 4 atoms of hydrogen. Carbon has an electron arrangement of 2,4 or 1s22s22p2.

So each carbon atom needs to gain 4 electrons to completely fill its outer shell so it will make 4 covalent bonds. Each hydrogen atom only needs to gain 1 electron so it will only make one covalent bond. In the dot and cross diagram below you can clearly see that each carbon atom bonds with 4 hydrogen atoms. The final diagram below shows a dot and cross diagram for the methane molecule, remember that a covalent bond involves the sharing of 2 electrons. One electron comes from each of the atoms involved in forming the covalent bond.

dot and cross diagram for a methane molecule. Model to show the structure of a water molecule with its lone pairs or non-bonding pairs of electrons.

Water- dot and cross diagram

Oxygen is a group 6 element with an electron arrangement of 2,6 or 1s22s22p4. So it needs to gain 2 electrons to obtain a full outer electron shell and as before hydrogen only needs to gain one electron to fill its last shell. To gain 2 electrons each oxygen atom will make 2 covalent bonds while each hydrogen atom only needs to gain 1 electron and so it will form only one covalent bond. Every atom in the water molecule ends up with a full last shell of electrons or a noble gas outer p6 electron arrangement. The oxygen atom also has 4 electrons in its last shell which are not used in bonding; these electrons will form the 2 lone pairs as shown.

Dot and cross diagram for formation of a water molecule.

Single, double and triple covalent bonds

If atoms in a molecule share only 2 electrons then they will form single covalent bonds. However if atoms have to share more than 2 electrons in order to achieve full last electron shells then double or even triple covalent bonds will be formed e.g. study the dot and cross diagrams below for hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen molecules.

Oxygen atoms have 6 electrons in their outer shell so need to gain two electrons so when oxygen atoms join to form an oxygen molecule these molecules will contain double covalent bonds between the atoms. Nitrogen atoms having only 5 electrons in their outer electron shell need to gain 3 more electrons to complete the outer electron shell; so when nitrogen atoms join there will be six electrons in the area of overlap between the atoms. This means that there is a triple covalent bond between the atoms. The image below explains this in more detail:

dot and cross diagrams showing the formation of single, double and triple covalent bonds.

Carbon dioxide dot and cross diagram

3d model of a carbon dioxide molecule

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is small covalent molecule that contains double covalent bonds between the atoms of carbon and oxygen. Carbon has an electron arrangement of 2,4 so it needs to gain 4 electrons to complete its octet of electrons and oxygen atoms have an electron arrangement 2,6 they need to gain 2 electrons to fill its last shell.

In order for both the carbon and oxygen atoms to end up with full outer electron shells they share 4 electrons between them. This results in a double C=O covalent bond forming. The diagram below shows a dot and cross diagram for a carbon dioxide molecule. dot and cross diagram to show bonding in a carbon dioxide molecule.

Key points

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on covalent bonding