sp³ Hybridization

The valence orbitals of an atom surrounded by a tetrahedral arrangement of bonding pairs and lone pairs consist of a set of four sp3 hybrid orbitals. The hybrids result from the mixing of one s orbital and all three p orbitals that produces four identical sp3 hybrid orbitals (figure below). Each of these hybrid orbitals points toward a different corner of a tetrahedron.

The hybridization of an s orbital (blue) and three p orbitals (red) produces four equivalent sp3 hybridized orbitals (yellow) oriented at 109.5° with respect to each other.

A molecule of methane, CH4, consists of a carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms at the corners of a tetrahedron. The carbon atom in methane exhibits sp3 hybridization. We illustrate the orbitals and electron distribution in an isolated carbon atom and in the bonded atom in CH4 in Figure 2 below. The four valence electrons of the carbon atom are distributed equally in the hybrid orbitals, and each carbon electron pairs with a hydrogen electron when the C–H bonds form.

The four valence atomic orbitals from an isolated carbon atom all hybridize when the carbon bonds in a molecule like CH4 with four regions of electron density. This creates four equivalent sp3 hybridized orbitals. Overlap of each of the hybrid orbitals with a hydrogen orbital creates a C–H σ bond.

In a methane molecule, the 1s orbital of each of the four hydrogen atoms overlaps with one of the four sp3 orbitals of the carbon atom to form a sigma (σ) bond. This results in the formation of four strong, equivalent covalent bonds between the carbon atom and each of the hydrogen atoms to produce the methane molecule, CH4.

The structure of ethane, C2H6, is similar to that of methane in that each carbon in ethane has four neighboring atoms arranged at the corners of a tetrahedron—three hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom ([link]). However, in ethane an sp3 orbital of one carbon atom overlaps end to end with an sp3 orbital of a second carbon atom to form a σ bond between the two carbon atoms. Each of the remaining sp3 hybrid orbitals overlaps with an s orbital of a hydrogen atom to form carbon–hydrogen σ bonds. The structure and overall outline of the bonding orbitals of ethane are shown in [link]. The orientation of the two CH3 groups is not fixed relative to each other. Experimental evidence shows that rotation around σ bonds occurs easily.

(a) In the ethane molecule, C2H6, each carbon has four sp3 orbitals. (b) These four orbitals overlap to form seven σ bonds.

An sp3 hybrid orbital can also hold a lone pair of electrons. For example, the nitrogen atom in ammonia is surrounded by three bonding pairs and a lone pair of electrons directed to the four corners of a tetrahedron. The nitrogen atom is sp3 hybridized with one hybrid orbital occupied by the lone pair.

The molecular structure of water is consistent with a tetrahedral arrangement of two lone pairs and two bonding pairs of electrons. Thus we say that the oxygen atom is sp3 hybridized, with two of the hybrid orbitals occupied by lone pairs and two by bonding pairs. Since lone pairs occupy more space than bonding pairs, structures that contain lone pairs have bond angles slightly distorted from the ideal. Perfect tetrahedra have angles of 109.5°, but the observed angles in ammonia (107.3°) and water (104.5°) are slightly smaller. Other examples of sp3 hybridization include CCl4, PCl3, and NCl3.