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Covalent Network Solids are giant covalent substances like diamond, graphite and silicon dioxide (silicon(IV) oxide). This page relates the structures of covalent network solids to the physical properties of the substances.
Carbon has an electronic arrangement of 2,4. In diamond, each carbon shares electrons with four other carbon atoms - forming four single bonds.
In the diagram some carbon atoms only seem to be forming two bonds (or even one bond), but that's not really the case. We are only showing a small bit of the whole structure. This is a giant covalent structure - it continues on and on in three dimensions. It is not a molecule, because the number of atoms joined up in a real diamond is completely variable - depending on the size of the crystal.
How to draw the structure of diamond
Don't try to be too clever by trying to draw too much of the structure! Learn to draw the diagram given above. Do it in the following stages:
Practice until you can do a reasonable free-hand sketch in about 30 seconds.
Graphite has a layer structure which is quite difficult to draw convincingly in three dimensions. The diagram below shows the arrangement of the atoms in each layer, and the way the layers are spaced.
Notice that you can't really draw the side view of the layers to the same scale as the atoms in the layer without one or other part of the diagram being either very spread out or very squashed.
In that case, it is important to give some idea of the distances involved. The distance between the layers is about 2.5 times the distance between the atoms within each layer. The layers, of course, extend over huge numbers of atoms - not just the few shown above.
You might argue that carbon has to form 4 bonds because of its 4 unpaired electrons, whereas in this diagram it only seems to be forming 3 bonds to the neighboring carbons. This diagram is something of a simplification, and shows the arrangement of atoms rather than the bonding.
Each carbon atom uses three of its electrons to form simple bonds to its three close neighbors. That leaves a fourth electron in the bonding level. These "spare" electrons in each carbon atom become delocalized over the whole of the sheet of atoms in one layer. They are no longer associated directly with any particular atom or pair of atoms, but are free to wander throughout the whole sheet.
The important thing is that the delocalized electrons are free to move anywhere within the sheet - each electron is no longer fixed to a particular carbon atom. There is, however, no direct contact between the delocalized electrons in one sheet and those in the neighboring sheets.
The atoms within a sheet are held together by strong covalent bonds - stronger, in fact, than in diamond because of the additional bonding caused by the delocalized electrons. So what holds the sheets together?
In graphite you have the ultimate example of van der Waals dispersion forces. As the delocalized electrons move around in the sheet, very large temporary dipoles can be set up which will induce opposite dipoles in the sheets above and below - and so on throughout the whole graphite crystal.
Silicon dioxide is also known as silica or silicon(IV) oxide has three different crystal forms. The easiest one to remember and draw is based on the diamond structure. Crystalline silicon has the same structure as diamond. To turn it into silicon dioxide, all you need to do is to modify the silicon structure by including some oxygen atoms.
Notice that each silicon atom is bridged to its neighbors by an oxygen atom. Don't forget that this is just a tiny part of a giant structure extending on all 3 dimensions.
Jim Clark (Chemguide.co.uk)
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1246120