The physical and chemical properties of an ionic compound are determined by the ions that constitute the compound. The compound’s properties are quite different from the properties of the elements that reacted to form the compound. For example, both sodium and chlorine react with water, but sodium chloride (NaCl) dissolves in water without reacting. In other words, sodium ions and chloride ions do not react with water, but sodium atoms and Cl2 molecules do.
Ionic compounds have many physical properties in common:
- they usually have melting points and boiling points well above room temperature.
- they are crystalline solids with distinct crystal shapes.
- they are brittle, will shatter if struck by a hammer, and can easily be cleaved (cleave means to break along smooth planes, as shown in this video).
- they are electrical insulators when solid but conduct electricity when molten (liquid). (See this video)
- when an ionic compound dissolves in water, the solution conducts electricity much more effectively than pure water.
Because all ionic compounds have similar properties, it is useful to be able to identify an ionic compound from its chemical formula. In general, ionic compounds contain cations of metals from the left side of the periodic table and anions of nonmetals from the right side of the periodic table. If a compound’s chemical formula contains a polyatomic ion, then the compound is an ionic compound.
The properties of ionic compounds can be interpreted in terms of ions. In the solid phase, ions are essentially fixed in their positions in a crystal lattice. Lattice shapes depend on the number and type of ions in the formula, but each lattice has a distinctive shape that results in the lowest energy (maximum lattice energy) possible. Because distances between ions are small, lattice energies are large. It requires a lot of energy to overcome attractions among the ions, making the crystal hard. The lattice shape is related to the shape of the macroscopic crystal. When a crystal cleaves, the cleavage planes are parallel to planes in the crystal lattice. (To see why, watch this video.)
When an ionic solid melts, the anions and cations are free to move randomly among each other. Although the average minimum distance between ions is still small (just a little larger than in the crystalline solid), some anions may be next to other anions and some cations near other cations. Hence, the Coulombic attractions are not as strong, and the Coulombic repulsions are greater, than in the solid phase; that is, part of the lattice energy needs to be overcome before an ionic compound melts.
When an ionic compound boils to form a gas, the atoms continue to move randomly but also are so far apart that attractions between them are negligible. All of the lattice energy must be overcome for an ionic compound to boil.
Electric current is the movement of electric charge from one place to another. Electric charge is carried by any moving charged particle. In a liquid ionic compound, where ions can move independently, electric charge is conducted by ions. When a solid ionic compound dissolves in water, the ions separate and can move independently throughout the solution. Movement of ions conducts electricity through the solution, just as it does in the molten liquid.
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