London Dispersion Force Definition

What London Dispersion Forces Are and How They Work

London dispersion force is a van der Walls force.
London dispersion force is a van der Walls force. Science Photo Library - MEHAU KULYK, Getty Images

London dispersion force is a weak intermolecular force between two atoms or molecules in close proximity to each other. The force is a quantum force generated by electron repulsion between the electron clouds of two atoms or molecules as they approach each other.

The London dispersion force is the weakest of the van der Waals forces and is the force that causes nonpolar atoms or molecules to condense into liquids or solids as temperature is lowered.

  Even though it is weak, of the three van der Waals forces (orientation, induction, dispersion), the dispersion forces are usually dominant. The exception is for small, readily polarized molecules (e.g., water).

The force gets its name because Fritz London first explained how noble gas atoms could be attracted to each other in 1930. His explanation was based on second-order perturbation theory.

Also Known As: London forces, LDF, dispersion forces, instantaneous dipole forces, induced dipole forces. London dispersion forces may sometimes be loosely referred to as van der Waals forces.

What Causes London Dispersion Forces?

When you think of electrons around an atom, you probably picture tiny moving dots, spaced equally around the atomic nucleus. However, electrons are always in motion, and sometimes there are more on one side of an atom than on the other. This happens around any atom, but it's more pronounced in compounds because electrons feel the attractive pull of the protons of neighboring atoms.

The electrons from two atoms can be arranged such that they produce temporary (instantaneous) electric dipoles. Even though the polarization is temporary, it's enough to affect the way atoms and molecules interact with each other.

London Dispersion Force Facts

  • Dispersion forces occur between all atoms and molecules. It doesn't matter whether they are polar or nonpolar. The forces come into play when the molecules are very close to each other. However, London dispersion forces are generally stronger between easily polarized molecules and weaker between molecules that are not easily polarized.
  • The magnitude of the force is related to the size of the molecule. Dispersion forces are stronger for larger and heavier atoms and molecules than for smaller and lighter ones. This is because the valence electrons are further away from the nucleus in large atoms/molecules than in small ones, so they are not as tightly bound to the protons.
  • The shape or conformation of a molecule affects its polarizability. It's like fitting together blocks or playing Tetris. Some shapes will naturally line up better than others.

Consequences of London Dispersion Forces

The polarizability affects how easily atoms and molecules form bonds with each other, so it also affects properties such as melting point and boiling point. For example, if you consider Cl2 and Br2, you might expect the two compounds to behave similarly because they are both halogens. Yet, chlorine is a gas at room temperature, while bromine is a liquid. Why? The London dispersion forces between the larger bromine atoms bring them close enough to form a liquid, while the smaller chlorine atoms have enough energy for the molecule to remain gaseous.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "London Dispersion Force Definition." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2018, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, January 12). London Dispersion Force Definition. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "London Dispersion Force Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 23, 2018).