4.5.3 Overlapping of Atomic Orbitals

When orbitals of two atoms come close to form bond, their overlap may be positive, negative or zero depending upon the sign (phase) and direction of orientation of amplitude of orbital wave function in space (Fig. 4.9).

Positive and negative sign on boundary surface diagrams in the Fig. 4.9 show the sign (phase) of orbital wave function and are not related to charge. Orbitals forming bond should have same sign (phase) and orientation in space. This is called positive overlap. Various overlaps of s and p orbitals are depicted in Fig. 4.9.

The criterion of overlap, as the main factor for the formation of covalent bonds applies uniformly to the homonuclear/heteronuclear diatomic molecules and polyatomic molecules.

We know that the shapes of CH4, NH3, and H2O molecules are tetrahedral, pyramidal and bent respectively. It would be therefore interesting to use VB theory to find out if these geometrical shapes can be explained in terms of the orbital overlaps.


Let us first consider the CH4 (methane) molecule. The electronic configuration of carbon in its ground state is [He]2s2 2p2 which in the excited state becomes [He] 2s1 2px1 2p y1 2pz1. The energy required for this excitation is compensated by the release of energy due to overlap between the orbitals of carbon and the hydrogen.

The four atomic orbitals of carbon, each with an unpaired electron can overlap with the 1s orbitals of the four H atoms which are also singly occupied. This will result in the formation of four C-H bonds. It will, however, be observed that while the three p orbitals of carbon are at 90° to one another, the HCH angle for these will also be 90°.

That is three C-H bonds will be oriented at 90° to one another. The 2s orbital of carbon and the 1s orbital of H are spherically symmetrical and they can overlap in any direction. Therefore the direction of the fourth C-H bond cannot be ascertained.

This description does not fit in with the tetrahedral HCH angles of 109.5°. Clearly, it follows that simple atomic orbital overlap does not account for the directional characteristics of bonds in CH4.

Using similar procedure and arguments, it can be seen that in the case of NH3 and H2O molecules, the HNH and HOH angles should be 90°. This is in disagreement with the actual bond angles of 107° and 104.5° in the NH3 and H2O molecules respectively.

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