Nature of the Ionic Bond

The nature of the ionic bond

When electrons are transferred from one atom to another it is called ionic bonding.

Electronegativity is a property of an atom, describing how strongly it attracts or holds onto electrons. Ionic bonding takes place when the difference in electronegativity between the two atoms is more than \(\text{1.7}\). This usually happens when a metal atom bonds with a non-metal atom. When the difference in electronegativity is large, one atom will attract the shared electron pair much more strongly than the other, causing electrons to be transferred to the atom with higher electronegativity. When ionic bonds form, a metal donates one or more electrons, due to having a low electronegativity, to form a positive ion or cation. The non-metal atom has a high electronegativity, and therefore readily gains electrons to form a negative ion or anion. The two ions are then attracted to each other by electrostatic forces.

Definition: Ionic bond

An ionic bond is a type of chemical bond where one or more electrons are transferred from one atom to another.

Example 1:

In the case of \(\text{NaCl}\), the difference in electronegativity between \(\text{Na}\) (\(\text{0.93}\)) and \(\text{Cl}\) (\(\text{3.16}\)) is \(\text{2.1}\). Sodium has only one valence electron, while chlorine has seven. Because the electronegativity of chlorine is higher than the electronegativity of sodium, chlorine will attract the valence electron of the sodium atom very strongly. This electron from sodium is transferred to chlorine. Sodium loses an electron and forms an \(\text{Na}^{+}\) ion.


Chlorine gains an electron and forms a \(\text{Cl}^{-}\) ion.



Chlorine is a diatomic molecule and so for it to take part in ionic bonding, it must first break up into two atoms of chlorine. Sodium is part of a metallic lattice and the individual atoms must first break away from the lattice.

The electron is therefore transferred from sodium to chlorine:


Ionic bonding in sodium chloride

The balanced equation for the reaction is:

\[2\text{Na} + \text{Cl}_{2} \rightarrow 2\text{NaCl}\]

Example 2:

Another example of ionic bonding takes place between magnesium \((\text{Mg})\) and oxygen \((\text{O}_{2})\) to form magnesium oxide \((\text{MgO})\). Magnesium has two valence electrons and an electronegativity of \(\text{1.31}\), while oxygen has six valence electrons and an electronegativity of \(\text{3.44}\). Since oxygen has a higher electronegativity, it attracts the two valence electrons from the magnesium atom and these electrons are transferred from the magnesium atom to the oxygen atom. Magnesium loses two electrons to form \(\text{Mg}^{2+}\), and oxygen gains two electrons to form \(\text{O}^{2-}\). The attractive force between the oppositely charged ions is what holds the compound together.

The balanced equation for the reaction is:

\[2\text{Mg} + \text{O}_{2} \rightarrow 2\text{MgO}\]

Because oxygen is a diatomic molecule, two magnesium atoms will be needed to combine with one oxygen molecule (which has two oxygen atoms) to produce two units of magnesium oxide \((\text{MgO})\).

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