Define ionic and molecular (covalent) compoundsPredict the type of compound formed from elements based on their location within the periodic tableDetermine formulas for simple ionic compounds

In ordinary chemical reactions, the nucleus of each atom (and thus the identity of the element) remains unchanged. Electrons, however, can be added to atoms by transfer from other atoms, lost by transfer to other atoms, or shared with other atoms. The transfer and sharing of electrons among atoms govern the chemistry of the elements. During the formation of some compounds, atoms gain or lose electrons, and form electrically charged particles called ions (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. (a) A sodium atom (Na) has equal numbers of protons and electrons (11) and is uncharged. (b) A sodium cation (Na+) has lost an electron, so it has one more proton (11) than electrons (10), giving it an overall positive charge, signified by a superscripted plus sign.

You can use the periodic table to predict whether an atom will form an anion or a cation, and you can often predict the charge of the resulting ion. Atoms of many main-group metals lose enough electrons to leave them with the same number of electrons as an atom of the preceding noble gas. To illustrate, an atom of an alkali metal (group 1) loses one electron and forms a cation with a 1+ charge; an alkaline earth metal (group 2) loses two electrons and forms a cation with a 2+ charge, and so on. For example, a neutral calcium atom, with 20 protons and 20 electrons, readily loses two electrons. This results in a cation with 20 protons, 18 electrons, and a 2+ charge. It has the same number of electrons as atoms of the preceding noble gas, argon, and is symbolized Ca2+. The name of a metal ion is the same as the name of the metal atom from which it forms, so Ca2+ is called a calcium ion.

When atoms of nonmetal elements form ions, they generally gain enough electrons to give them the same number of electrons as an atom of the next noble gas in the periodic table. Atoms of group 17 gain one electron and form anions with a 1− charge; atoms of group 16 gain two electrons and form ions with a 2− charge, and so on. For example, the neutral bromine atom, with 35 protons and 35 electrons, can gain one electron to provide it with 36 electrons. This results in an anion with 35 protons, 36 electrons, and a 1− charge. It has the same number of electrons as atoms of the next noble gas, krypton, and is symbolized Br−. (A discussion of the theory supporting the favored status of noble gas electron numbers reflected in these predictive rules for ion formation is provided in a later chapter of this text.)

Note the usefulness of the periodic table in predicting likely ion formation and charge (Figure 2). Moving from the far left to the right on the periodic table, main-group elements tend to form cations with a charge equal to the group number. That is, group 1 elements form 1+ ions; group 2 elements form 2+ ions, and so on. Moving from the far right to the left on the periodic table, elements often form anions with a negative charge equal to the number of groups moved left from the noble gases. For example, group 17 elements (one group left of the noble gases) form 1− ions; group 16 elements (two groups left) form 2− ions, and so on. This trend can be used as a guide in many cases, but its predictive value decreases when moving toward the center of the periodic table. In fact, transition metals and some other metals often exhibit variable charges that are not predictable by their location in the table. For example, copper can form ions with a 1+ or 2+ charge, and iron can form ions with a 2+ or 3+ charge.

Figure 2. Some elements exhibit a regular pattern of ionic charge when they form ions.

Example 1

Composition of IonsAn ion found in some compounds used as antiperspirants contains 13 protons and 10 electrons. What is its symbol?

SolutionBecause the number of protons remains unchanged when an atom forms an ion, the atomic number of the element must be 13. Knowing this lets us use the periodic table to identify the element as Al (aluminum). The Al atom has lost three electrons and thus has three more positive charges (13) than it has electrons (10). This is the aluminum cation, Al3+.

Check Your LearningGive the symbol and name for the ion with 34 protons and 36 electrons.

Example 2

Formation of IonsMagnesium and nitrogen react to form an ionic compound. Predict which forms an anion, which forms a cation, and the charges of each ion. Write the symbol for each ion and name them.

SolutionMagnesium’s position in the periodic table (group 2) tells us that it is a metal. Metals form positive ions (cations). A magnesium atom must lose two electrons to have the same number electrons as an atom of the previous noble gas, neon. Thus, a magnesium atom will form a cation with two fewer electrons than protons and a charge of 2+. The symbol for the ion is Mg2+, and it is called a magnesium ion.

Nitrogen’s position in the periodic table (group 15) reveals that it is a nonmetal. Nonmetals form negative ions (anions). A nitrogen atom must gain three electrons to have the same number of electrons as an atom of the following noble gas, neon. Thus, a nitrogen atom will form an anion with three more electrons than protons and a charge of 3−. The symbol for the ion is N3−, and it is called a nitride ion.

Check Your LearningAluminum and carbon react to form an ionic compound. Predict which forms an anion, which forms a cation, and the charges of each ion. Write the symbol for each ion and name them.


Al will form a cation with a charge of 3+: Al3+, an aluminum ion. Carbon will form an anion with a charge of 4−: C4−, a carbide ion.

The ions that we have discussed so far are called monatomic ions, that is, they are ions formed from only one atom. We also find many polyatomic ions. These ions, which act as discrete units, are electrically charged molecules (a group of bonded atoms with an overall charge). Some of the more important polyatomic ions are listed in Table 6. Oxyanions are polyatomic ions that contain one or more oxygen atoms. At this point in your study of chemistry, you should memorize the names, formulas, and charges of the most common polyatomic ions. Because you will use them repeatedly, they will soon become familiar.

NameFormulaRelated AcidFormula
ammonium extNH_4^;;+
hydronium extH_3 extO^+
oxide extO_2^;;-
peroxide extO_2^;;2-
hydroxide extOH^-
acetate extCH_3 extCOO^-acetic acid extCH_3 extCOOH
cyanide extCN^-hydrocyanic acid extHCN
azide extN_3^;;-hydrazoic acid extHN_3
carbonate extCO_3^;;2-carbonic acid extH_2 extCO_3
bicarbonate extHCO_3^;;-
nitrate extNO_3^;;-nitric acid extHNO_3
nitrite extNO_2^;;-nitrous acid extHNO_2
sulfate extSO_4^;;2-sulfiric acid extH_2 extSO_4
hydrogen sulfate extHSO_4^;;-
sulfite extSO_3^;;2-sulfurous acid extH_2 extSO_3
hydrogen sulfite extHSO_3^;;-
phosphate extPO_4^;;3-phosphoric acid extH_3 extPO_4
hydrogen phosphate extHPO_4^;;2-
dihydrogen phosphate extH_2 extPO_4^;;-
perchlorate extClO_4^;;-perchloric acid extHClO_4
chlorate extClO_3^;;-chloric acid extHClO_3
chlorite extClO_2^;;-chlorous acid extHClO_2
hypochlorite extClO^-hypochlorous acid extHClO
chromate extCrO_4^;;2-chromic acid extH_2 extCr_2 extO_4
dichromate extCr_2 extO_7^;;2-dichromic acid extH_2 extCr_2 extO_7
permanganate extMnO_4^;;-permanganic acid extHMnO_4
Table 6. Common Polyatomic Ions

Note that there is a system for naming some polyatomic ions; -ate and -ite are suffixes designating polyatomic ions containing more or fewer oxygen atoms. Per- (short for “hyper”) and hypo- (meaning “under”) are prefixes meaning more oxygen atoms than -ate and fewer oxygen atoms than -ite, respectively. For example, perchlorate is ClO4−, chlorate is ClO3−, chlorite is ClO2− and hypochlorite is ClO−. Unfortunately, the number of oxygen atoms corresponding to a given suffix or prefix is not consistent; for example, nitrate is NO3− while sulfate is SO42−. This will be covered in more detail in the next module on nomenclature.

The nature of the attractive forces that hold atoms or ions together within a compound is the basis for classifying chemical bonding. When electrons are transferred and ions form, ionic bonds result. Ionic bonds are electrostatic forces of attraction, that is, the attractive forces experienced between objects of opposite electrical charge (in this case, cations and anions). When electrons are “shared” and molecules form, covalent bonds result. Covalent bonds are the attractive forces between the positively charged nuclei of the bonded atoms and one or more pairs of electrons that are located between the atoms. Compounds are classified as ionic or molecular (covalent) on the basis of the bonds present in them.

Ionic Compounds

When an element composed of atoms that readily lose electrons (a metal) reacts with an element composed of atoms that readily gain electrons (a nonmetal), a transfer of electrons usually occurs, producing ions. The compound formed by this transfer is stabilized by the electrostatic attractions (ionic bonds) between the ions of opposite charge present in the compound. For example, when each sodium atom in a sample of sodium metal (group 1) gives up one electron to form a sodium cation, Na+, and each chlorine atom in a sample of chlorine gas (group 17) accepts one electron to form a chloride anion, Cl−, the resulting compound, NaCl, is composed of sodium ions and chloride ions in the ratio of one Na+ ion for each Cl− ion. Similarly, each calcium atom (group 2) can give up two electrons and transfer one to each of two chlorine atoms to form CaCl2, which is composed of Ca2+ and Cl− ions in the ratio of one Ca2+ ion to two Cl− ions.

A compound that contains ions and is held together by ionic bonds is called an ionic compound. The periodic table can help us recognize many of the compounds that are ionic: When a metal is combined with one or more nonmetals, the compound is usually ionic. This guideline works well for predicting ionic compound formation for most of the compounds typically encountered in an introductory chemistry course. However, it is not always true (for example, aluminum chloride, AlCl3, is not ionic).

You can often recognize ionic compounds because of their properties. Ionic compounds are solids that typically melt at high temperatures and boil at even higher temperatures. For example, sodium chloride melts at 801 °C and boils at 1413 °C. (As a comparison, the molecular compound water melts at 0 °C and boils at 100 °C.) In solid form, an ionic compound is not electrically conductive because its ions are unable to flow (“electricity” is the flow of charged particles). When molten, however, it can conduct electricity because its ions are able to move freely through the liquid (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Sodium chloride melts at 801 °C and conducts electricity when molten. (credit: modification of work by Mark Blaser and Matt Evans)