ionic compounds

Foundation and higher tiers

Structure of ionic compounds

The positive metal ions and negative non-metal ions produced when metals and non-metals react with each other to form ionic compounds will be attracted to each other and pack as closely together as possible in a regular way. Structures with regular arrangements of atoms or ions are often referred to as being crystalline. The electrostatic attraction of positive and negative ions for each other is called an ionic bond. Ionic compounds consist of a giant structure made of these ions. These giant structures of ions are often referred to as an ionic lattice. The smaller the ions and the more highly charged they are will mean that they can pack together more closely and form a stronger ionic bond.

Sodium a group I metal will form an ion with a +1 charge. Chlorine a group 7 halogen will form an ion with a -1 charge. If you look at grains of sodium chloride; an ionic compound under the microscope you will see that they have a cubic shape. The image below shows the structure of the sodium chloride lattice. The green spheres represent chloride ions (Cl-) and the blue spheres sodium ions (Na+).

3d model of the sodium chloride lattice.

Finding the formula of an ionic compound

3d model of the sodium chloride lattice structure.If you were to count the ions in the model opposite you would notice that there are equal numbers of positively charged sodium ions (Na+) and negatively charged chloride ions (Cl-). This is simply because when the ions pack together they do in such a way that the charges always cancel out. The +1 charge on the sodium ion is cancelled out by the -1 charge on the chloride ion. So the ratio of the ions is 1:1. This simple ratio of ions enables you to calculate the empirical (simplest) formula for the compound. So in the case of sodium chloride it is NaCl. Its ionic formula is Na+Cl-.

You will often see the giant lattice structure for ionic compounds shown in different ways. This is to try and help you visualize what the giant structure looks like. Opposite is shown the cubic lattice for sodium chloride (NaCl). The chloride ions (Cl-) are shown in green and the sodium ions (Na+) are a yellow/green colour; but this time there are no bonds shown between the ions. In reality there would be no gaps between the ions as they will pack together as closely as possible but this model does allow you to view the interior of the structure which is not possible from the first model. Both models should help you to visualize how the ions are arranged in the giant lattice structure.

Co-ordination numbers

model showing the co-ordination number in a sodium chloride lattice. None of the models for sodium chloride shown allow you to spot immediately how the crystal structure is built. If you pick out one sodium ion you should see that it has six immediate neighbours. One chloride above it and one below; one to its left and one to its right and one in front and one behind. This is shown opposite. The same is true if you pick a chloride ion. Each sodium or chloride ion has 6 immediate neighbours; the ions within this lattice structure are described as 6 co-ordinate.

All ionic compounds have a giant lattice structure made up of ions. However not all ionic lattices have a face centred cubic structure like sodium chloride or are 6 co-ordinate. Remember the ions will always try and pack together as closely as possible but in a way that maximises the attraction between oppositely charged ions and reduces the repulsion between ions of a similar charge. However the different size of the ions in the compound will limit how closely they can pack together to maximise attractions and reduce repulsion. The image below shows ball and stick models for the structure of the calcium fluoride lattice. Clearly it is not cubic like the sodium chloride lattice because the ions are different in size and charge. In the models the red ions are Ca2+ and the blue ions are F-.

A 3d model of the calcium fluoride lattice

What will be the empirical formula for calcium fluoride?

Group ions or polyatomic ions

Some ions are compounds and contain more than one type of element. You will have met these ions in the past but perhaps not realised they were group ions. For example the sulfate ion; SO42-, ammonium ion NH4+ and hydroxide ion OH- are all compounds and contain more than one element. These compounds are often called polyatomic ions or simply group ions. They are shown below: 3d models showing the structure of several polyatomic ions or group ions. When working out the formula of compounds containing these ions just use the same rules as before.

What will be the empirical formula for sodium sulfate?

Key Points

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on ionic lattices and formulae

Check your understanding - Quick quiz on ionic compounds.