Another type of strong chemical bond between two or more atoms is a covalent bond. These bonds form when an electron is shared between two elements and are the strongest and most common form of chemical bond in living organisms. Covalent bonds form between the elements that make up the biological molecules in our cells. Unlike ionic bonds, covalent bonds do not dissociate in water.
The hydrogen and oxygen atoms that combine to form water molecules are bound together by covalent bonds. The electron from the hydrogen atom divides its time between the outer shell of the hydrogen atom and the incomplete outer shell of the oxygen atom. To completely fill the outer shell of an oxygen atom, two electrons from two hydrogen atoms are needed, hence the subscript “2” in H2O. The electrons are shared between the atoms, dividing their time between them to “fill” the outer shell of each. This sharing is a lower energy state for all of the atoms involved than if they existed without their outer shells filled.
There are two types of covalent bonds: polar and nonpolar. Nonpolar covalent bonds form between two atoms of the same element or between different elements that share the electrons equally. For example, an oxygen atom can bond with another oxygen atom to fill their outer shells. This association is nonpolar because the electrons will be equally distributed between each oxygen atom. Two covalent bonds form between the two oxygen atoms because oxygen requires two shared electrons to fill its outermost shell. Nitrogen atoms will form three covalent bonds (also called triple covalent) between two atoms of nitrogen because each nitrogen atom needs three electrons to fill its outermost shell. Another example of a nonpolar covalent bond is found in the methane () molecule. The carbon atom has four electrons in its outermost shell and needs four more to fill it. It gets these four from four hydrogen atoms, each atom providing one. These elements all share the electrons equally, creating four nonpolar covalent bonds (Figure 2.6).
In a polar covalent bond, the electrons shared by the atoms spend more time closer to one nucleus than to the other nucleus. Because of the unequal distribution of electrons between the different nuclei, a slightly positive () or slightly negative () charge develops. The covalent bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water are polar covalent bonds. The shared electrons spend more time near the oxygen nucleus, giving it a small negative charge, than they spend near the hydrogen nuclei, giving these molecules a small positive charge.