D5.1 Forces Between Atoms

In Days 2 through 4, we have discussed atomic structure and electron density as well as periodic trends in effective nuclear charge, size of atoms, ionization energies, and electron affinities. All of these are central to understanding properties and chemical reactivity of the elements. Next, we apply those ideas to noble gases and metals.

Applying Core Ideas: Two Similar Atoms, Two Very Different Substances

The section Matter, Energy, Models introduced the idea that atoms, molecules, and oppositely charged ions attract and that their potential energy can be described by a curve that starts at zero when the particles are far apart, falls to a minimum, and increases when the particles are very close together. The depth of the minimum in such a curve can be related to physical properties such as boiling points, because atomic-level particles gain energy as temperature increases.

Consider the boiling points of the first five noble gases in the table below.

Noble Gas Atomic Number Atomic Radius (pm) Boiling Point (K)
He 2 31 4.22
Ne 10 68 27.1
Ar 18 91 87.4
Kr 36 108 119.9
Xe 54 126 165

Based on the boiling point data, for which noble gas is the attraction between particles greatest? Which noble gas has the deepest minimum in its curve of potential energy vs distance between atoms? In your notebook, answer these questions. Then use one set of axes and sketch the potential-energy curve for each of the five noble gases in the table, describe the curves in words and explain why you drew the curves as you did.

Based on the experimental data and the curves you drew, correlate the size of the attraction between atoms with the number of electrons and the size of each atom. Write several sentences in your notebook describing the correlation.

Now consider iron, which has atomic number 26 and atomic radius 126 pm (the same radius as Xe, but fewer electrons). Based on this information, sketch the potential energy curve for iron atoms on the graph you made for the noble gases. Describe the curve in words and explain why you drew the curve as you did.

Does what you predicted for iron make sense?

Based only on experimental data for noble gases, one might predict that iron would be a gas at room temperature, but iron is a solid. Attractive forces between iron atoms must be a lot stronger than attractive forces between noble-gas atoms. To make sense of the difference between xenon and iron, we need a better model for forces between atoms.

Let’s begin by thinking about attractions between xenon atoms. On average the electron density distribution of the 54 electrons surrounding a xenon nucleus is spherically symmetric. That is, no matter which direction you go from the nucleus, the electron density is the same at the same distance from the nucleus. However, there can be very brief deviations or fluctuations from this average. In 1928, German-American physicist Fritz London used quantum mechanics to show how such fluctuations could lead to attractive forces between atoms and other atomic-scale particles.

Figure: Atomic Attraction. Simplified explanation of attraction between two Xe atoms.

Here is a simplified explanation using Xe atoms as an example. Consider a fluctuation in which there is slightly more electron density on one side of the nucleus than on the other. Such a brief deviation creates a dipole, a distribution of electric charge where one side is more positive and the other side is more negative. This dipole only occurs for an instant and is therefore called an instantaneous dipole. This is shown in the figure part (b) at the right, where δ+ and δ indicate a fraction of an electron’s charge.

If a second Xe atom is close to the first one when the instantaneous dipole forms, for example, in the figure part (c), the excess negative charge on the right of the first Xe atom repels the electrons on the second Xe atom. This forms a second dipole, again for only an instant. The second dipole is said to be induced by the first one. The positively charged end of the second dipole is attracted to the negatively charged end of the first dipole. For the instant that the dipoles exist, there is a weak attraction between the two atoms.

These weak attractive forces due to instantaneous fluctuations in electron density are called London dispersion forces; we will often refer to them as LDFs. LDFs are present between all atomic-scale particles: atoms, molecules, and ions. The size of the attractive force depends on the number of electrons in a particle and how easily the electron density distribution can be distorted from its average shape.

Activity: LDFs and Noble Gas Boiling Points
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Chemistry 109 Fall 2021 by John Moore, Jia Zhou, and Etienne Garand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.