How To Find Formal Charge Of An Atom In A Compound

How To Find Formal Charge Of An Atom In A Compound

How To Find Formal Charge Of An Atom In A Compound

How To Find Formal Charge Of An Atom In A Compound

Understanding the formal charge of an atom in a compound is a fundamental concept in chemistry. It allows us to determine the electron distribution within a molecule and predict its reactivity. Whether you are a student studying chemistry or someone who wants to refresh their knowledge, this article will provide you with a comprehensive guide on how to find the formal charge of an atom in a compound.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Definition of Formal Charge
  • Calculation of Formal Charge
  • Examples
  • FAQs


In a compound, atoms can lose or gain electrons to achieve a more stable electron configuration. Formal charge helps us determine the distribution of these electrons among the atoms in the compound. By assigning charges to individual atoms, we can understand their relative electronegativity and reactivity.

Formal charge is different from the oxidation state, which is a measure of the real charge an atom carries in a molecule. It is important to note that formal charge assumes complete electron transfer, even though this may not be the case in reality.

Definition of Formal Charge

Formal charge is the hypothetical charge assigned to an atom in a molecule or ion when electrons are divided equally between atoms in a chemical bond. It is calculated by comparing the number of valence electrons an atom should have according to its position in the periodic table and the number of valence electrons it actually has in the compound.

Factors affecting formal charge:

  1. The number of valence electrons an atom has.
  2. The number of lone pairs on the atom.
  3. The number of shared electrons in chemical bonds.

Calculation of Formal Charge

To calculate the formal charge of an atom, the following formula can be used:

Formal Charge = Valence Electrons - Lone Pair Electrons - Shared Pair Electrons

In this formula:

  • Valence Electrons refer to the number of electrons an atom would have in its isolated neutral state.
  • Lone Pair Electrons are the non-bonding electrons present on the atom.
  • Shared Pair Electrons are the electrons involved in bonding with other atoms.

The sum of the formal charges of all atoms in a neutral compound should be zero. For ions, the sum of formal charges should equal the charge of the ion.


Let’s illustrate the calculation of formal charge using a few examples:

1. Water (H2O)

In water, each hydrogen atom is bonded to the oxygen atom. Oxygen has six valence electrons, and each hydrogen has one valence electron. Applying the formal charge formula:

Formal Charge (Oxygen) = 6 - 2 - 4 = 0

Formal Charge (Hydrogen) = 1 - 0 - 2 = -1

The formal charge of the oxygen atom in water is zero, while the formal charge of each hydrogen atom is -1.

2. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

In carbon dioxide, each oxygen atom is double bonded to the carbon atom. Carbon has four valence electrons, and each oxygen has six. Applying the formal charge formula:

Formal Charge (Carbon) = 4 - 0 - 4 = 0

Formal Charge (Oxygen) = 6 - 4 - 4 = 0

Both the carbon and oxygen atoms in carbon dioxide have a formal charge of zero.


Q1: Why is formal charge important in chemistry?

A1: Formal charge helps chemists understand the electron distribution in a molecule, which is vital for predicting its reactivity and behavior.

Q2: Are formal charges always accurate?

A2: No, formal charges assume complete electron transfer, which may not reflect the true distribution of electrons in a molecule.

Q3: Can formal charges be negative?

A3: Yes, formal charges can be negative, positive, or zero depending on the distribution of electrons among the atoms in a compound.

Q4: How can I determine if a Lewis structure is correct?

A4: In a correct Lewis structure, the formal charges should sum up to zero for neutral compounds or equal the overall charge for ions.

Q5: Can atoms have fractional formal charges?

A5: Yes, atoms can have fractional formal charges, especially in molecules with resonance structures.

By understanding how to find the formal charge of an atom in a compound, you can gain valuable insights into its reactivity and behavior. Remember that formal charge is a theoretical concept and should be used as a tool to aid in understanding rather than an absolute measure of true electron distribution. Practicing the calculation of formal charge through various examples will enhance your understanding and proficiency in chemistry.

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