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Ligands are ions or neutral molecules that bond to a central metal atom or ion. Ligands act as Lewis bases (electron pair donors), and the central atom acts as a Lewis acid (electron pair acceptor). Ligands have at least one donor atom with an electron pair used to form covalent bonds with the central atom. Ligands can be anions, cations, or neutral molecules.
A monodentate ligand has only one donor atom used to bond to the central metal atom or ion. The term "monodentate" can be translated as "one tooth," referring to the ligand binding to the center through only one atom. Some examples of monodentate ligands are: chloride ions (referred to as chloro when it is a ligand), water (referred to as aqua when it is a ligand), hydroxide ions (referred to as hydroxo when it is a ligand), and ammonia (referred to as ammine when it is a ligand).
Fig. 1. Central atom with six monodentate ligands attached. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Bidentate ligands have two donor atoms which allow them to bind to a central metal atom or ion at two points. Common examples of bidentate ligands are ethylenediamine (en), and the oxalate ion (ox). Shown below is a diagram of ethylenediamine: the nitrogen (blue) atoms on the edges each have two free electrons that can be used to bond to a central metal atom or ion.
Fig. 2. Ethylenediamine an example of a bidentate ligand. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Polydentate ligands range in the number of atoms used to bond to a central metal atom or ion. EDTA, a hexadentate ligand, is an example of a polydentate ligand that has six donor atoms with electron pairs that can be used to bond to a central metal atom or ion.
EDTA is a polydentate ligand. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Chelation is a process in which a polydentate ligand bonds to a metal ion, forming a ring. The complex produced by this process is called a chelate, and the polydentate ligand is referred to as a chelating agent.
Metal-EDTA Chelate. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
For a more in-depth study of ligand nomenclature, read the module on Nomenclature of Coordination Complexes