What is Covalent Bonding? - why do some atoms form covalent bonds? Why are covalent bonds so strong?
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Covalent Bonding

Water molecule diagram
Diagram of a molecule of water

February 2017 - When two atoms come near each other, sometimes they stick together to make a molecule. One way they can stick together is by covalent bonding.

In covalent bonding, the atoms are unstable because their outer rings of electrons aren't filled up. By sharing electrons with other atoms, these atoms can fill up their outer rings and become stable. In water, for instance, the oxygen atom needs two more electrons to be stable, and the hydrogen atoms each need one. When they get together, the oxygen atom shares one electron with each of the hydrogen atoms, and the hydrogen atoms each share one electron with the oxygen atom. That's why the question of whether covalent bonds are stronger than ionic bonds is hard: because in space, in a vacuum, ionic bonds are stronger, but in real life, we're often talking about covalent bonds in living cells, and so they're in water. In water, covalent bonds are stronger than ionic bonds.

small horse sculpted out of copper wire

Molecules that join with covalent bonds aren't very much attracted to each other (unlike with ionic bonding), so they move freely around each other. That means that most molecules that form covalent bonds make either liquids or gases, like water and carbon dioxide. The main exception is metals, which hold together using covalent bonding but are still solids. That's why metals are so flexible and easy to melt so you can make them into different shapes.

Learn by doing: try bending copper wire into sculptures
Ionic bonding

Bibliography and further reading about covalent bonding:

Ionic bonding
Atoms
Chemistry
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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