A dipole moment measures a separation of charge. For one bond, the bond dipole moment is determined by the difference in electronegativity between the two atoms. For a molecule, the overall dipole moment is determined by both the individual bond moments and how these dipoles are arranged in the molecular structure. Polar molecules (those with an appreciable dipole moment) interact with electric fields, whereas nonpolar molecules do not.

18.1 Molecular Polarity and Dipole Moment

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the concepts of polar covalent bonds and molecular polarity
  • Assess the polarity of a molecule based on its bonding and structure

As discussed previously, polar covalent bonds connect two atoms with differing electronegativities, leaving one atom with a partial positive charge (δ+) and the other atom with a partial negative charge (δ–), as the electrons are pulled toward the more electronegative atom. This separation of charge gives rise to a bond dipole moment. The magnitude of a bond dipole moment is represented by the Greek letter mu (µ) and is given by the formula shown here, where Q is the magnitude of the partial charges (determined by the electronegativity difference) and r is the distance between the charges:


This bond moment can be represented as a vector, a quantity having both direction and magnitude (Figure 18.1). Dipole vectors are shown as arrows pointing along the bond from the less electronegative atom toward the more electronegative atom. A small plus sign is drawn on the less electronegative end to indicate the partially positive end of the bond. The length of the arrow is proportional to the magnitude of the electronegativity difference between the two atoms.

Figure 18.1

(a) There is a small difference in electronegativity between C and H, represented as a short vector. (b) The electronegativity difference between B and F is much larger, so the vector representing the bond moment is much longer.

Two images are shown and labeled, “a” and “b.” Image a shows a large sphere labeled, “C,” a left-facing arrow with a crossed end, and a smaller sphere labeled “H.” Image b shows a large sphere labeled, “B,” a right-facing arrow with a crossed end, and a smaller sphere labeled “F.”

A whole molecule may also have a separation of charge, depending on its molecular structure and the polarity of each of its bonds. If such a charge separation exists, the molecule is said to be a polar molecule (or dipole); otherwise the molecule is said to be nonpolar. The dipole moment measures the extent of net charge separation in the molecule as a whole. We determine the dipole moment by adding the bond moments in three-dimensional space, taking into account the molecular structure.

For diatomic molecules, there is only one bond, so its bond dipole moment determines the molecular polarity. Homonuclear diatomic molecules such as Br2 and N2 have no difference in electronegativity, so their dipole moment is zero. For heteronuclear molecules such as CO, there is a small dipole moment. For HF, there is a larger dipole moment because there is a larger difference in electronegativity.

When a molecule contains more than one bond, the geometry must be taken into account. If the bonds in a molecule are arranged such that their bond moments cancel (vector sum equals zero), then the molecule is nonpolar. This is the situation in CO2 (Figure 18.2). Each of the bonds is polar, but the molecule as a whole is nonpolar. From the Lewis structure, and using VSEPR theory, we determine that the CO2 molecule is linear with polar C=O bonds on opposite sides of the carbon atom. The bond moments cancel because they are pointed in opposite directions. In the case of the water molecule (Figure 18.2), the Lewis structure again shows that there are two bonds to a central atom, and the electronegativity difference again shows that each of these bonds has a nonzero bond moment. In this case, however, the molecular structure is bent because of the lone pairs on O, and the two bond moments do not cancel. Therefore, water does have a net dipole moment and is a polar molecule (dipole).

Figure 18.2

The overall dipole moment of a molecule depends on the individual bond dipole moments and how they are arranged. (a) Each CO bond has a bond dipole moment, but they point in opposite directions so that the net CO2 molecule is nonpolar. (b) In contrast, water is polar because the OH bond moments do not cancel out.

Two images are shown and labeled, “a” and “b.” Image a shows a carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms in a ball-and-stick representation. Two arrows face away from the center of the molecule in opposite directions and are drawn horizontally like the molecule. These arrows are labeled, “Bond moments,” and the image is labeled, “Overall dipole moment equals 0.” Image b shows an oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms in a downward-facing v-shaped arrangement. An upward-facing, vertical arrow is drawn below the molecule while two upward and inward facing arrows are drawn above the molecule. The upper arrows are labeled, “Bond moments,” while the image is labeled, “Overall dipole moment.”

The OCS molecule has a structure similar to CO2, but a sulfur atom has replaced one of the oxygen atoms. To determine if this molecule is polar, we draw the molecular structure. VSEPR theory predicts a linear molecule:

An image shows a carbon atom double bonded to a sulfur atom and an oxygen atom which are arranged in a horizontal plane. Two arrows face away from the center of the molecule in opposite directions and are drawn horizontally like the molecule. The left-facing arrow is larger than the right-facing arrow. These arrows are labeled, “Bond moments,” and a left-facing arrow below the molecule is labeled, “Overall dipole moment.”

The C-O bond is considerably polar. Although C and S have very similar electronegativity values, S is slightly more electronegative than C, and so the C-S bond is just slightly polar. Because oxygen is more electronegative than sulfur, the oxygen end of the molecule is the negative end.

Chloromethane, CH3Cl, is a tetrahedral molecule with three slightly polar C-H bonds and a more polar C-Cl bond. The relative electronegativities of the bonded atoms is H < C < Cl, and so the bond moments all point toward the Cl end of the molecule and sum to yield a considerable dipole moment (the molecules are relatively polar).

An image shows a carbon atom single bonded to three hydrogen atoms and a chlorine atom. There are arrows with crossed ends pointing from the hydrogen to the carbon near each bond, and one pointing from the carbon to the chlorine along that bond. The carbon and chlorine arrow is longer. This image uses dashes and wedges to give it a three-dimensional appearance.

For molecules of high symmetry such as BF3 (trigonal planar), CH4 (tetrahedral), PF5 (trigonal bipyramidal), and SF6 (octahedral), all the bonds are of identical polarity (same bond moment) and they are oriented in geometries that yield nonpolar molecules (dipole moment is zero). Molecules of less geometric symmetry, however, may be polar even when all bond moments are identical. For these molecules, the directions of the equal bond moments are such that they sum to give a nonzero dipole moment and a polar molecule. Examples of such molecules include hydrogen sulfide, H2S (nonlinear), and ammonia, NH3 (trigonal pyramidal).

Two Lewis structures are shown. The left structure shows a sulfur atom with two lone pairs of electrons single bonded to two hydrogen atoms. Near the sulfur is a dipole symbol with a superscripted negative sign. Near each hydrogen is a dipole symbol with a superscripted positive sign. The right structure shows a nitrogen atom with one lone pair of electrons single bonded to three hydrogen atoms. Near the nitrogen is a dipole symbol with a superscripted negative sign. Near each hydrogen is a dipole symbol with a superscripted positive sign.

To summarize, to be polar, a molecule must:

  1. Contain at least one polar covalent bond.
  2. Have a molecular structure such that the sum of the vectors of each bond dipole moment does not cancel.

Properties of Polar Molecules

Polar molecules tend to align when placed in an electric field with the positive end of the molecule oriented toward the negative plate and the negative end toward the positive plate (Figure 18.3). We can use an electrically charged object to attract polar molecules, but nonpolar molecules are not attracted. Also, polar solvents are better at dissolving polar substances, and nonpolar solvents are better at dissolving nonpolar substances.

Figure 18.3

(a) Molecules are always randomly distributed in the liquid state in the absence of an electric field. (b) When an electric field is applied, polar molecules like HF will align to the dipoles with the field direction.

Two diagrams are shown and labeled “a” and “b.” Diagram a shows two vertical, gray electrodes. There are five molecules in between. The molecules are separate from one another and are composed of a hydrogen atom bonded to a fluorine atom. The fluorine atom is labeled with a dipole symbol and a superscripted negative sign while the hydrogen atom is labeled with a dipole symbol and a superscripted positive sign. The molecules are randomly oriented in the space. The right diagram also shows two vertical gray electrodes, the left labeled as negative and the right labeled as positive. The space between is yellow. The same molecules are present, but this time they are all facing horizontally, with the hydrogen-end of each molecule facing toward the negative electrode.

Example 18.1

Polarity Simulations

Open the molecule polarity simulation and select the “Three Atoms” tab at the top. This should display a molecule ABC with three electronegativity adjustors. You can display or hide the bond moments, molecular dipoles, and partial charges at the right. Turning on the Electric Field will show whether the molecule moves when exposed to a field, similar to Figure 18.3.

Use the electronegativity controls to determine how the molecular dipole will look for the starting bent molecule if:

(a) A and C are very electronegative and B is in the middle of the range.

(b) A is very electronegative, and B and C are not.


(a) Molecular dipole moment points immediately between A and C.

(b) Molecular dipole moment points along the A–B bond, toward A.

Check Your Learning

Determine the partial charges that will give the largest possible bond dipoles.

The largest bond moments will occur with the largest partial charges. The two solutions above represent how unevenly the electrons are shared in the bond. The bond moments will be maximized when the electronegativity difference is greatest. The controls for A and C should be set to one extreme, and B should be set to the opposite extreme. Although the magnitude of the bond moment will not change based on whether B is the most electronegative or the least, the direction of the bond moment will.

Link to Supplemental Exercises

Supplemental exercises are available if you would like more practice with these concepts.


Previous Citation(s)
Flowers, P., Neth, E. J., Robinson, W. R., Theopold, K., & Langley, R. (2019). Chemistry in Context. In Chemistry: Atoms First 2e. OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-atoms-first-2e/pages/4-6-molecular-structure-and-polarity

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