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Covalent Bonding in Polyatomic Ions

Lewis dot structures represent ion and charge

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Covalent Bonding in Polyatomic Ions

Drawing Lewis structures for polyatomic ions is like extending laws to fit a new situation

Credit: Jan Seifert
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jan-on-tour/4126331850/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

How do we extend basic principles?

The United States Supreme Court has the unenviable task of deciding what the law is.  This responsibility can be a major challenge when there is no clear principle involved or where there is a new situation not encountered before.  Chemistry faces the same challenge in extending basic concept to fit a new situation.  Drawing of Lewis structures for polyatomic ions uses the same approach, but tweaks the process a little to fit a somewhat different set of circumstances.

Polyatomic Ions

Recall that a polyatomic ion is a group of atoms that are covalently bonded together and which carry an overall electrical charge. The ammonium ion, NH4+, is formed when a hydrogen ion (H+) attaches to the lone pair of an ammonia (NH3) molecule in a coordinate covalent bond.

Structure of the ammonium ion

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng, using 3D molecular structure by Ben Mills (Wikimedia: Benjah-bmm27)
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ammonium-3D-vdW.png
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The ammonium ion.[Figure2]

When drawing the Lewis structure of a polyatomic ion, the charge of the ion is reflected in the number of total valence electrons in the structure.  In the case of the ammonium ion:

1 N atom=5 valence electrons4 H atoms=4×1=4 valence electronssubtract 1 electron for the 1+charge of the iontotal of 8 valence electrons in the ion

It is customary to put the Lewis structure of a polyatomic ion into a large set of brackets, with the charge of the ion as a superscript outside the brackets.

Sample Problem: Lewis Electron Dot Structure of a Polyatomic Ion

Draw the Lewis electron dot structure for the sulfate ion.

Step 1: List the known quantities and plan the problem.


molecular formula of sulfate ion=SO421 S atom=6 valence electrons4 O atoms=4×6=24 valence electronsadd 2 electrons for the 2 charge of the iontotal of 32 valence electrons

The less electronegative sulfur atom is the central atom in the structure.  Place the oxygen atoms around the sulfur atom, each with a single covalent bond.  Distribute lone pairs to each oxygen atom in order to satisfy the octet rule.  Count the total number of atoms.  If there are too many electrons in the structure, make multiple bonds between the S and O.

Step 2: Solve.

Structure of the sulfate ion

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The sulfate ion.[Figure3]

Step 3:  Think about your result.

The Lewis structure for the sulfate ion consists of a central sulfur atom with four single bonds to oxygen atoms.  This yields the expected total of 32 electrons.  Since the sulfur atom started with six valence electrons, two of the S-O bonds are coordinate covalent.



  1. What are two characteristics of polyatomic ions?
  2. Which atom becomes the central atom in the structure?
  3. Where is the charge on the ion placed?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Jan Seifert; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jan-on-tour/4126331850/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng, using 3D molecular structure by Ben Mills (Wikimedia: Benjah-bmm27); Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ammonium-3D-vdW.png; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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