Covalent Bond Definition

Understand What a Covalent Bond Is in Chemistry

Water molecules
There is a covalent bond between the oxygen and each hydrogen in a water molecule (H2O). Laguna Design / Getty Images

Covalent Bond Definition

A covalent bond is a chemical link between two atoms or ions where the electron pairs are shared between them. A covalent bond may also be termed a molecular bond. Covalent bonds form between two nonmetal atoms with identical or relatively close electronegativity values. This type of bond may also be found in other chemical species, such as radicals and macromolecules. The term "covalent bond" first came into use in 1939, although Irving Langmuir introduced the term "covalence" in 1919 to describe the number of electron pairs shared by neighboring atoms.

The electron pairs that participate in a covalent bond are called bonding pairs or shared pairs. Typically, sharing bonding pairs allows each atom to achieve a stable outer electron shell, similar to that seen in noble gas atoms.

Polar and Nonpolar Covalent Bonds

Two important types of covalent bonds are nonpolar or pure covalent bonds and polar covalent bonds. Nonpolar bonds occur when atoms equally share electron pairs. Since only identical atoms (same electronegativity as each other) truly engage in equal sharing, the definition is expanded to include covalent bonding between any atoms with an electronegativity difference less than 0.4. Examples of molecules with nonpolar bonds are H2, N2, and CH4.

As the electronegativity difference increases, the electron pair in a bond is more closely associated with one nucleus than the other. If the electronegativity difference is between 0.4 and 1.7, the bond is polar.

If the electronegativity difference is greater than 1.7, the bond is ionic.

Covalent Bond Examples

There is a covalent bond between the oxygen and each hydrogen in a water molecule (H2O). Each of the covalent bonds contains two electrons - one from a hydrogen atom and one from the oxygen atom. Both atoms share the electrons.

A hydrogen molecule, H2, consists of two hydrogen atoms joined by a covalent bond. Each hydrogen atom needs two electrons to achieve a stable outer electron shell. The pair of electrons is attracted to the positive charge of both atomic nuclei, holding the molecule together.

Phosphorus can form either PCl3 or PCl5. In both cases the phosphorus and chlorine atoms are connected by covalent bonds. PCl3 assumes the expected noble gas structure, where the atoms achieve complete outer electron shells. Yet PCl5 is also stable, so it's important to remember covalent bonds don't always abide by the octet rule.