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Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

The arrangement of atoms in a molecule or ion is called its molecular structure. In many cases, following the steps for writing Lewis structures may lead to more than one possible molecular structure—different multiple bond and lone-pair electron placements or different arrangements of atoms, for instance. A few guidelines involving formal charge can be helpful in deciding which of the possible structures is most likely for a particular molecule or ion:

  1. A molecular structure in which all formal charges are zero is preferable to one in which some formal charges are not zero.
  2. If the Lewis structure must have nonzero formal charges, the arrangement with the smallest nonzero formal charges is preferable.
  3. Lewis structures are preferable when adjacent formal charges are zero or of the opposite sign.
  4. When we must choose among several Lewis structures with similar distributions of formal charges, the structure with the negative formal charges on the more electronegative atoms is preferable.

To see how these guidelines apply, let us consider some possible structures for carbon dioxide, CO2. We know from our previous discussion that the less electronegative atom typically occupies the central position, but formal charges allow us to understand why this occurs. We can draw three possibilities for the structure: carbon in the center and double bonds, carbon in the center with a single and triple bond, and oxygen in the center with double bonds:

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

Comparing the three formal charges, we can definitively identify the structure on the left as preferable because it has only formal charges of zero (Guideline 1).

As another example, the thiocyanate ion, an ion formed from a carbon atom, a nitrogen atom, and a sulfur atom, could have three different molecular structures: CNS, NCS, or CSN. The formal charges present in each of these molecular structures can help us pick the most likely arrangement of atoms. Possible Lewis structures and the formal charges for each of the three possible structures for the thiocyanate ion are shown here:

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

Note that the sum of the formal charges in each case is equal to the charge of the ion (–1). However, the first arrangement of atoms is preferred because it has the lowest number of atoms with nonzero formal charges (Guideline 2). Also, it places the least electronegative atom in the center, and the negative charge on the more electronegative element (Guideline 4).

Example: Using Formal Charge to Determine Molecular Structure

Nitrous oxide, N2O, commonly known as laughing gas, is used as an anesthetic in minor surgeries, such as the routine extraction of wisdom teeth. Which is the likely structure for nitrous oxide?

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure


Determining formal charge yields the following:

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

The structure with a terminal oxygen atom best satisfies the criteria for the most stable distribution of formal charge:

Using Formal Charge to Predict Molecular Structure

The number of atoms with formal charges are minimized (Guideline 2), and there is no formal charge larger than one (Guideline 2). This is again consistent with the preference for having the less electronegative atom in the central position.

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