Ionic Compounds

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Sodium chloride melts at 801 °C and conducts electricity when molten. (credit: modification of work by Mark Blaser and Matt Evans)

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

When an element composed of atoms that readily lose electrons (a metal) reacts with an element composed of atoms that readily gain electrons (a nonmetal), a transfer of electrons usually occurs, producing ions. The compound formed by this transfer is stabilized by the electrostatic attractions (ionic bonds) between the ions of opposite charge present in the compound. For example, when each sodium atom in a sample of sodium metal (group 1) gives up one electron to form a sodium cation, Na+, and each chlorine atom in a sample of chlorine gas (group 17) accepts one electron to form a chloride anion, Cl, the resulting compound, NaCl, is composed of sodium ions and chloride ions in the ratio of one Na+ ion for each Cl ion. Similarly, each calcium atom (group 2) can give up two electrons and transfer one to each of two chlorine atoms to form CaCl2, which is composed of Ca2+ and Cl ions in the ratio of one Ca2+ ion to two Cl ions.

A compound that contains ions and is held together by ionic bonds is called an ionic compound. The periodic table can help us recognize many of the compounds that are ionic: When a metal is combined with one or more nonmetals, the compound is usually ionic. This guideline works well for predicting ionic compound formation for most of the compounds typically encountered in an introductory chemistry course. However, it is not always true (for example, aluminum chloride, AlCl3, is not ionic).

You can often recognize ionic compounds because of their properties. Ionic compounds are solids that typically melt at high temperatures and boil at even higher temperatures. For example, sodium chloride melts at 801 °C and boils at 1413 °C. (As a comparison, the molecular compound water melts at 0 °C and boils at 100 °C.) In solid form, an ionic compound is not electrically conductive because its ions are unable to flow (“electricity” is the flow of charged particles). When molten, however, it can conduct electricity because its ions are able to move freely through the liquid.

In every ionic compound, the total number of positive charges of the cations equals the total number of negative charges of the anions. Thus, ionic compounds are electrically neutral overall, even though they contain positive and negative ions. We can use this observation to help us write the formula of an ionic compound. The formula of an ionic compound must have a ratio of ions such that the numbers of positive and negative charges are equal.

Many ionic compounds contain polyatomic ions as the cation, the anion, or both. As with simple ionic compounds, these compounds must also be electrically neutral, so their formulas can be predicted by treating the polyatomic ions as discrete units. We use parentheses in a formula to indicate a group of atoms that behave as a unit. For example, the formula for calcium phosphate, one of the minerals in our bones, is Ca3(PO4)2. This formula indicates that there are three calcium ions (Ca2+) for every two phosphate (PO43−) groups. The (PO43−) groups are discrete units, each consisting of one phosphorus atom and four oxygen atoms, and having an overall charge of 3−. The compound is electrically neutral, and its formula shows a total count of three Ca, two P, and eight O atoms.

Because an ionic compound is not made up of single, discrete molecules, it may not be properly symbolized using a molecular formula. Instead, ionic compounds must be symbolized by a formula indicating the relative numbers of its constituent ions. For compounds containing only monatomic ions (such as NaCl) and for many compounds containing polyatomic ions (such as CaSO4), these formulas are just the empirical formulas introduced earlier in this chapter. However, the formulas for some ionic compounds containing polyatomic ions are not empirical formulas. For example, the ionic compound sodium oxalate is comprised of Na+ and C2O42− ions combined in a 2:1 ratio, and its formula is written as Na2C2O4. The subscripts in this formula are not the smallest-possible whole numbers, as each can be divided by 2 to yield the empirical formula, NaCO2. This is not the accepted formula for sodium oxalate, however, as it does not accurately represent the compound’s polyatomic anion, C2O42−.



Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: