Introduction to Compounds

There are only 118 known chemical elements but tens of millions of known chemical compounds. Neutral elements and the compounds they combine with each other to form have very different physical and chemical properties. Sodium metal, a soft, silvery-white metal that burns vigorously in air and reacts explosively with water, is made up of neutral sodium atoms. Neutral chlorine atoms make up chlorine gas, a yellow-green gas that is extremely corrosive to most metals and very poisonous to animals and plants. The vigorous reaction between the elements sodium and chlorine forms the white, crystalline compound sodium chloride, common table salt. The compound sodium chloride exhibits properties entirely different from the properties of the elements sodium and chlorine. Chlorine is poisonous, but sodium chloride is essential to life; sodium atoms react vigorously with water, but sodium chloride is un-reactive with water and simply dissolves.

Three pictures are shown and labeled “a,” “b,” and “c,” from left to right. Image a shows a glass jar with a lid that is full of a clear, colorless liquid in which a silver solid is suspended. Image b depicts a glass bottle with a blue lid that is full of a yellow-green gas. Image c shows a black dish that is full of a white, crystalline solid.
(a) Sodium is a soft metal that must be stored in mineral oil to prevent reaction with air or water. (b) Chlorine is a pale yellow-green gas. (c) When combined, they form white crystals of sodium chloride (table salt). (credit a: modification of work by “Jurii”/Wikimedia Commons)

Chemical Bonds

Atoms can join together to form a compound by forming a chemical bond, which is a very strong attraction between two atoms. Chemical bonds are formed when electrons in different atoms interact with each other to make an arrangement that is more stable than when the atoms are apart.

What causes atoms to make a chemical bond with other atoms, rather than remaining as individual atoms? A clue comes by considering the noble gas elements, the rightmost column of the periodic table. These elements—helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon—do not form compounds very easily, which suggests that they are especially stable as lone atoms. What else do the noble gas elements have in common? Except for helium, they all have eight valence electrons. (Valence electrons are the electrons in the outermost shell of an atom.) Chemists have concluded that atoms are especially stable if they have eight electrons in their outermost shell. This useful rule of thumb is called the octet rule, and it is a key to understanding why compounds form.

Exception to the octet rule: For small atoms, such as hydrogen and helium, the outermost shell only holds two electrons. Therefore, these atoms satisfy a “duet rule” rather than the octet rule.

Two Types of Compounds: Ionic and Covalent

There are two ways for an atom that does not have an octet of valence electrons to obtain an octet in its outer shell. One way is the transfer of electrons between two atoms until all atoms have octets. Because some atoms will lose electrons and some atoms will gain electrons, there is no overall change in the number of electrons, but individual atoms acquire a nonzero electric charge. Those that lose electrons become positively charged, and those that gain electrons become negatively charged. Charged atoms are called ions. Because opposite charges attract (while like charges repel), these oppositely charged ions attract each other, forming ionic bonds. The resulting compounds are called ionic compounds. You can read more about ions, ionic bonds, and ionic compounds later in this chapter.

The second way for an atom to obtain an octet of electrons is by sharing electrons with another atom. These shared electrons simultaneously occupy the outermost shell of more than one atom. The bond made by electron sharing is called a covalent bond. Covalent bonds and covalent compounds will also be discussed later in this chapter.


This page is based on “Chemistry 2e” by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley, William R. Robinson, PhDOpenstax which is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Access for free at

This page is based on “The Basics of General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry” by David W Ball, John W Hill, Rhonda J ScottSaylor which is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Access for free at