A single covalent bond is created when two atoms share a pair of electrons. There is no net charge on either atom; the attractive force is produced by interaction of the electron pair with the nuclei of both atoms. If the atoms share more than two electrons, double and triple bonds are formed, because each shared pair produces its own bond. By sharing their electrons, both atoms are able to achieve a highly stable electron configuration corresponding to that of an inert gas. For example, in methane (CH4), carbon shares an electron pair with each hydrogen atom; the total number of electrons shared by carbon is eight, which corresponds to the number of electrons in the outer shell of neon; each hydrogen shares two electrons, which corresponds to the electron configuration of helium.
In most covalent bonds, each atom contributes one electron to the shared pair. In certain cases, however, both electrons come from the same atom. As a result, the bond has a partly ionic character and is called a coordinate link. Actually, the only purely covalent bond is that between two identical atoms.
Covalent bonds are of particular importance in organic chemistry because of the ability of the carbon atom to form four covalent bonds. These bonds are oriented in definite directions in space, giving rise to the complex geometry of organic molecules. If all four bonds are single, as in methane, the shape of the molecule is that of a tetrahedron. The importance of shared electron pairs was first realized by the American chemist G. N. Lewis (1916), who pointed out that very few stable molecules exist in which the total number of electrons is odd. His octet rule allows chemists to predict the most probable bond structure and charge distribution for molecules and ions. With the advent of quantum mechanics, it was realized that the electrons in a shared pair must have opposite spin, as required by the Pauli exclusion principle. The molecular orbital theory was developed to predict the exact distribution of the electron density in various molecular structures. The American chemist Linus Pauling introduced the concept of resonance to explain how stability is achieved when more than one reasonable molecular structure is possible: the actual molecule is a coherent mixture of the two structures.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.