Intermolecular Forces


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Three sealed flasks are labeled, “Crystalline solid,” “Liquid,” and “Gas,” from left to right. The first flask holds a cube composed of small spheres sitting on the bottom while the second flask shows a lot of small spheres in the bottom that are spaced a small distance apart from one another and have lines around them to indicate motion. The third flask shows a few spheres spread far from one another with larger lines to indicate motion. There is a right-facing arrow that spans the top of all three flasks. The arrow is labeled, “Increasing K E ( temperature ).” There is a left-facing arrow that spans the bottom of all three flasks. The arrow is labeled, “Increasing I M F.”

Figure 1. Transitions between solid, liquid, and gaseous states of a substance occur when conditions of temperature or pressure favor the associated changes in intermolecular forces. (Note: The space between particles in the gas phase is much greater than shown.) Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The differences in the properties of a solid, liquid, or gas reflect the strengths of the attractive forces between the atoms, molecules, or ions that make up each phase. The phase in which a substance exists depends on the relative extents of its intermolecular forces (IMFs) and the kinetic energies (KE) of its molecules. IMFs are the various forces of attraction that may exist between the atoms and molecules of a substance due to electrostatic phenomena, as will be detailed in this module. These forces serve to hold particles close together, whereas the particles’ KE provides the energy required to overcome the attractive forces and thus increase the distance between particles. Figure 1 illustrates how changes in physical state may be induced by changing the temperature, hence, the average KE, of a given substance.

As an example of the processes depicted in this figure, consider a sample of water. When gaseous water is cooled sufficiently, the attractions between H2O molecules will be capable of holding them together when they come into contact with each other; the gas condenses, forming liquid H2O. For example, liquid water forms on the outside of a cold glass as the water vapor in the air is cooled by the cold glass, as seen in Figure 2.

Image a shows a brown colored beverage in a glass with condensation on the outside. Image b shows a body of water with fog hovering above the surface of the water.
Figure 2. Condensation forms when water vapor in the air is cooled enough to form liquid water, such as (a) on the outside of a cold beverage glass or (b) in the form of fog. (credit a: modification of work by Jenny Downing; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

We can also liquefy many gases by compressing them, if the temperature is not too high. The increased pressure brings the molecules of a gas closer together, such that the attractions between the molecules become strong relative to their KE. Consequently, they form liquids. Butane, C4H10, is the fuel used in disposable lighters and is a gas at standard temperature and pressure. Inside the lighter’s fuel compartment, the butane is compressed to a pressure that results in its condensation to the liquid state, as shown in Figure 3.

A butane lighter is shown.
Figure 3. Gaseous butane is compressed within the storage compartment of a disposable lighter, resulting in its condensation to the liquid state. (credit: modification of work by “Sam-Cat”/Flickr)

Finally, if the temperature of a liquid becomes sufficiently low, or the pressure on the liquid becomes sufficiently high, the molecules of the liquid no longer have enough KE to overcome the IMF between them, and a solid forms.


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


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